ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The Turkish-backed National Army on Saturday claimed to have launched an operation to take Tel Rifaat after a Turkish soldier was killed and another wounded in clashes with Kurdish forces near the Syrian city.
According to reports by local Kurdish media, the operation has only targeted the villages of al-Malikiyah, Shewragha, and Tanb with shelling and heavy weapons. However, there are no signs of an offensive against Tel Rifaat itself.
It also remains unclear if the Turkish-backed militias have actually taken control of any villages.
The operation allegedly began after Turkish soldiers were killed in recent clashes with Kurdish forces near Tel Rifaat.
On Saturday, fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces left one Turkish lieutenantdead and injured one major. Moreover, the Turkish Defense Ministry confirmed in late April that one Turkish soldier was killed and three others slightly injured.
On Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said there had been four days of Turkish shelling in locations where Kurdish forces are present in the northern sector of Aleppo countryside.
Elsewhere, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported on Saturday that Syrian regime artillery struck Turkish Armed Forces in the Hama region.
There were earlier rumors of a possible deal between Russia and Turkey with the Syrian government on the countryside of Idlib or Hama in exchange for Tel Rifaat, an area which Turkey claims the Kurds have used to attack their forces in Afrin.
In late April, displaced people from Afrin organized protests in front of a Russian base in Tel Rifaat, demanding an explanation from the Russians, underlining that Turkey was occupying parts of Syria.
Turkish forces occupied the Kurdish city of Afrin in March 2018, in an attempt to crush Kurdish aspirations of autonomy in the region.
This led to the displacement of 140,000 Kurds from the latter in what critics describe as a sustained campaign of demographic change. Most of them are based in camps in the Shahba region (northern Aleppo).
Syrian Kurdish officials also suggested that Russia allowed Turkey to attack Afrin last year, in exchange for Turkey allowing the regime to evacuate people from Ghouta to Afrin to help the regime relieve its burden.
Kurdish Affairs analyst Mutlu Civiroglu told Kurdistan 24 in April that there were fears among Syrian Kurds of a possible deal between Russia and Turkey.
“Russian forces might be withdrawing from military posts to open the way for Turkish movements in return for some behind-the-curtain deals, and that there is another deal to handover Tel Rifaat, Shahba region [to Turkey],” he stated.
Civiroglu underlined that the main scare was that in return for concessions in Idlib, “Russia might allow Turkey further control in regions like Shahba, Tel Rifaat, and Mennegh airport.”
Senior Syrian Kurdish politician Fawza Youssef, also a senior member of Kongra Star, published an opinion piece in April for Ronahi where she warned of a possible Russian-Turkish deal that could lead to more displacement.
According to Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Research Fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, only three villages have come under the control of Turkish-backed forces. Kurdish forces, meanwhile, have yet to confirm the news.
“The quick handover of the three villages south of Azaz, despite heavy fortification of the area, and the timing of the Turkish-backed offensive (in concurrence with a regime and Russian escalation in Idlib and Hama) are suggestive that there is indeed a deal in place,” Tsurkov told Kurdistan 24.
However, she said the “outlines of the deal between Russia and Turkey are unclear at this point.”
Tsurkov noted that it is also unclear how wide the Turkish-backed offensive will be, adding a possible operation would threaten to displace further civilians who had originally fled Afrin and are stuck in the Shahba region.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany