ANKARA: A bomb attack in the Syrian city of Afrin that killed at least 46 civilians and injured 50 people has drawn international attention away from the rebel-held Idlib province.
The focus is now on the northwest of the country in a region that has been controlled by Turkish forces and allied opposition factions in Syria for more than two years.
The attack has reopened debate on the fragility of the security environment in the Afrin region, and whether there are tensions between Turkey’s Syrian proxies in the region and the local population.
No group has claimed responsibility for the terror attack in this formerly Kurdish-held enclave.
However, civilians, including many children, paid the price of the bomb-loaded fuel tanker that exploded in the middle of a crowded market on Monday afternoon, when shoppers were making their preparations before breaking Ramadan fast.
The White Helmets, the well-known rescue workers in Syria, also condemned the “horrific massacre” of civilians. The attack was one of the deadliest in the region under the control of Ankara-backed factions, and the group urged for “international intervention to protect innocents.”
The US State Department also condemned it as a “cowardly act of evil” and reiterated the UN’s call for a cease-fire in the war-torn country.
Ankara, which blamed the attack on the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), considers it to be affiliated with the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is designated as a terror organization by Turkey, the US and the EU. The YPG claims they are separate entities.
“The Afrin region has never been fully secure,” said Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria studies at the Ankara-based ORSAM think tank. “The main reason for this fragile security environment was the continuing YPG attacks and intrusions coming from the adjacent city of Tal Rifaat.”
Mostly Arab and Turkish families from the eastern cities of Ghouta and Homs have been housed in Afrin recently — a move criticized by some as social engineering to change the demographic balances of the formerly Kurdish-majority region.
In return, tens of thousands of displaced Kurds from Afrin have been living in Tal Rifaat since the Turkish operation to take the city in 2018. Russian forces and the YPG are also found in Afrin.
Administrative governance of the city is carried out by seven local assemblies which are governed by the prominent figures of the region, who do not have any affiliation with the YPG. The security of the region is maintained by Syrian police forces, which are mainly composed of young people from Afrin. Turkish military and gendarmerie forces have been training the police in Afrin and providing them with security consultancy.
“This attack is one of the bloodiest, but it is not the first. Almost each week, there are three or four terror attacks in Afrin at smaller scales, sometimes against civilians and sometimes in the form of assassination attempts against Turkish soldiers. Tal Rifaat has been at the center of Turkish-Russian negotiations for a long time. But Moscow resists to open the door for any potential Turkish offensive to Tal Rifaat, which lies 13 miles southeast of Afrin,” Orhan told Arab News.
The Russian-Turkish deal of 2019 required the Syrian Kurdish YPG forces to withdraw by up to 30 km from the Turkish-Syrian border. It also led to the start of joint Turkish-Russian patrols.
However, Orhan said the security of Afrin cannot be ensured if the intrusions into the city are not halted with strict border control. Tal Rifaat is also known as an important logistical hub for the YPG.
“The ongoing disagreements between Turkey and Russia, that accelerated in February, also coincided with the acceleration of YPG’s attacks in this region with the expectations that Turkey may completely pull out of Syria if the divergences with Moscow come to the point of no return. But if similar attacks are repeated in the near future, I’m sure Ankara will prioritize it during its negotiations with Russia over Syria,” he said.
Experts also note that this attack on civilians in Afrin may be revenge or a retaliation of a recent strike by a drone on Monday night — believed to be belonging to Turkey — against a Kurdish Internal Security Forces checkpoint in Kobani that caused material damage but no human casualties. Ankara did not give a statement on the event.
The alleged drone attack occurred on the same day when the Russian military police and the Turkish Army carried out their usual joint patrols west of the city of Kobani.