ANKARA: Turkish troops and the Syrian National Army launched Operation Peace Spring in northern Syria on Wednesday afternoon.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said its aim is to “prevent the creation of a terror corridor across the southern border and to bring peace to the area.” Turkish armed forces are hoping to establish a safe zone extending 32 km into Syrian territory.
Turkish F-16 jets hit targets in Ras Al-Ain, with the Syrian-Kurdish YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) their main objective.
Ankara opposes the YPG over its ties with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a violent insurgency against the Turkish state for decades. But the YPG has been a key ally of the US in the fight against Daesh. This week, however, the White House announced it was withdrawing special forces from the area ahead of the Turkish operation.
Now the big question is how residents of the Syrian border towns of Tal Abyad and Ras Al-Ain, which will be among the first targets, will react.
The YPG captured Tal Abyad — an Arab-majority town located to the north of Raqqa near the Turkish border — from Daesh in 2015 by the YPG. The fact that the area is predominantly Arab means that the first phase of the operation there is more likely to meet with the residents’ approval, according to experts.
The Tal Abyad district belongs to Kurdish canton of Kobane, but is populated by a number of different tribes, in long-established separate zones. The Kurdish minority is settled in the western part of the area.
Four years ago, Amnesty International claimed that the YPG was conducting an ethnic-cleansing campaign against Arabs in some villages of Tal Abyad, while there are still complaints from the local Arabs that the YPG is trying to “Kurdify” the residents through school curricula and the confiscation of properties.
Ammar Hamou, a Jordan-based Syrian journalist, said that people to the east of the Euphrates are divided in their opinions of the operation, but that the majority of Arabs support it.
“As for how the people see the Free Army and Turkey, unfortunately, many consider Turkey’s move an occupation and are afraid of the ruthless military operation, especially since there was a bad experience in Afrin,” he told Arab News, referring to the ongoing Operation Olive Branch, conducted by the Turkish Armed Forces and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army in Syria’s majority-Kurdish Afrin district.
According to Hamou, if Turkey is able to ensure that there are no human-rights violations by its forces or the Syrian National Army, then locals may accept the process.
“The success of the safe zone is Turkey's responsibility, and it is a difficult test,” he said. “Returning refugees from the east of the Euphrates to the region will be welcomed by the people, but the return of Syrians from other areas such as Homs and Damascus is a demographic change.”
Ankara’s draft plan for a construction project in the area is focused on building 200,000 houses in the safe zone in northeast Syria, which includes Tal Abyad, in order to settle around 1 million Syrian refugees who are currently hosted in Turkish territories.
There is a significant number of Arab refugees from Tal Abyad currently living in Turkey and they are eager to return to their homeland with the help of Ankara’s operation. The tribal system still predominates among the Arab communities in the zone, with tribal leaders maintaining a level of authority over the residents.
Galip Dalay, visiting scholar at the University of Oxford, said the Arab tribes in Tal Abyad and Ras Al-Ain will likely be calculating which side is most likely to win.
“Some local groups who were previously cooperating with the YPG could now side with the Turks, if they think the Turkish army will (prevail). Their pragmatic reasoning will be determinant,” he told Arab News.
In Jays, the main tribe in Tal Abyad, the Bou Assaf clan works closely with the YPG, while two other clans — Jamilah and Bou Jarada — oppose it. There are also a number of Turkmen tribes, who, obviously, are in favor of Turkey.The symbolic timing of the operation is also telling: On Oct. 9, 1998, Syria put the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, on a plane to Moscow, and he was arrested in Kenya a year later.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Program at the Washington Institute, said that Turkish troops are deliberately targeting a narrow belt along the Syrian border stretching from Tal Abyad to Ras Al-Ayn, as it is an Arab-majority area. In other words, he said, this is not a Turkish invasion of major Kurdish areas, but a Turkish invasion of Arab areas controlled by Kurds. He added that the “face” of the Turkish incursion will have an Arab component, consisting mainly of Arabs from the area.
“Therefore, Turkish troops will be welcomed more than they would be if they went into Kobane or Kurdish-majority areas along the border,” he said. “Some of the residents of this Arab area were driven out when Daesh took over, and many others were driven out when YPG took control, and they were all forced into Turkey.”