The invasion of Sere Kaniye…when Ankara undermined peace and Washington turned its back on Rojava

QAMISHLI, Syria (North Press) – Last year in autumn, the population of northeastern Syria was about to breathe a sigh of relief and think seriously about long-term stability far from the horrors of war, but it has been undermined by Ankara with an offensive that amounted to a humanitarian catastrophe.

The sense of stability was developed due to the increasing talk about the possibility of creating a scenario called a “safe zone/security mechanism”, which the US-led Global Coalition announced at the time to play the role of mediator between Ankara and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to formulate it and ensure the continuation of its implementation. 

However, this was short-lived, as Turkey beat the drums of war on the border strip in Sere Kaniye (Ras al-Ain) and Tel Abyad, which prompted the collapse of the nascent agreement in conjunction with Washington’s abandonment of its pledges and sellout of Rojava.   

How did the story begin? 

On July 29, 2019, an American delegation headed by Washington’s Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey ended its talks regarding the establishment of a “safe zone” in northeastern Syria with Turkish officials at the Turkish Foreign Ministry headquarters in Ankara.   

On the same day, Jeffrey unveiled part of the results of the talks in the context of reassuring his Kurdish allies in Syria, saying that “the discussions are continuing.”   

Ibrahim Kalin, spokesperson of the Turkish Presidency and the US special envoy to Syria, James Jeffrey, May, 2019 – Anadolu Agency

In those statements, Jeffrey announced that the appropriate depth for this area ranges between 5 and 15 km, with the withdrawal of heavy weapons to areas outside of this zone.

The new project must be run by joint American and Turkish forces, he said.  

However, at the time, he did not hide what he described as “Turkey’s very hardline stance.” Despite that, he stressed that his country would continue discussions on various levels, including talks on the military side.

The talks were dominated by “some difference of views between Ankara and Washington,” but the Americans decided “not to focus on them much.”

On the contrary, the American delegation showed more engagement with how they work with the Turks in this area. 

“We want to work with them. This agreement is what we can offer to the people of northeastern Syria, and it is very important,” Jeffrey said.

But in August, things seemed to be heading towards a completely different scenario. On August 6, the US warned against any unilateral military operation by Turkey in the areas east of the Euphrates.   

The American warning came on the eve of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement that his country would launch a military operation against the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG). “We have informed Moscow and Washington about it,” he said, which heralded the collapse of the talks.   

Two days later, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced that his country would prevent any unilateral invasion into northern Syria, and that any Turkish operation there is “unacceptable.”   

Statements by the two sides came at a time when Jeffrey’s team was holding talks with Ankara officials in conjunction with talks between an American military delegation and Turkish officials in Ankara, all of which were aimed at “reaching an agreement to establish a safe zone.”  

“Paving the way for the disaster”  

After this back and forth, and several declarations, the parties went to implement the agreement establishing a safe zone. 

On August 22, North Press obtained a video recording of a meeting that took place that day between a delegation of the Global Coalition and officials in the civil and military councils of the city of Sere Kaniye.   

The video showed officers of the coalition discussing with SDF leaders the “security mechanism” that was to be established on the border between Syria and Turkey in the area between the cities of Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad.  

The meeting aimed at informing the officials of the two cities about the mechanism to be established and how to carry out the plans “that aimed at protecting civilians from any Turkish invasion.”   

The meeting was joined by Alexander Deeb, a border security official of the US forces and the Global Coalition, and a representative of the US State Department named “George”. 

Col. Karl, an official with the US Special Forces in Syria and one of the negotiators for the SDF with Turkey, joined the meeting too.   

One day after the meeting, the US Central Command announced through its Twitter account, that “Within 24 hours of a phone call between the US Secretary of Defense and his Turkish counterpart about security in northeastern Syria, the SDF dismantled their fortifications.”  

A soldier of the Global Coalition with a fighter from Sere Kaniye during destroying fortifications – Muhammad Habash – North Press

According to the statement, the SDF proved its commitment to support the implementation of the “security mechanism”, after which the first phase of the agreement will begin. 

On August 24, the commander of the Global Coalition forces in Syria and the deputy commander of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Nicholas Bond, appeared at the annual general meeting of the leaders of the SDF.

“Any military attack by Turkey on northeastern regions of Syria will affect relations and agreements with Ankara,” he said. 

“The Global Coalition forces will continue supporting the SDF to restore peace and eliminate ISIS,” he assured.  

The meeting coincided with the withdrawal of the first groups of the YPG from the border with Turkey, near the city of Sere Kaniye. 

The YPG withdrew their heavy weapons in conjunction with the flight of Global Coalition warplanes, which monitored the withdrawal from the border regions and their handover to local military councils.

The YPG also withdrew from their border points in the city of Tel Abyad after filling in tunnels that they had earlier prepared due to Turkish threats.   

Later, observers described these measures as “paving the way for the Turkish army and their affiliated Syrian armed groups,” as the area formed a loophole for Turkish forces to enter by land during the offensive. 

Undermining a fragile agreement  

After these efforts, things seemed to be improving for the residents of the region and the local forces, especially after the conduct of the first joint US-Turkish patrol on September 8, 2019 east of the city of Tel Abyad, in coordination with the Tel Abyad Military Council.   

US-Turkish patrol during the implementation of the security mechanism agreement in Sere Kaniye – Muhammad Habash – North Press

Meanwhile, the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) against ISIS started to praise what it described as “the important role that the SDF play in northern Syria.”  

This praise came after a speech by Erdogan in which he threatened to launch a unilateral military operation in northern Syria if his forces were unable to control the safe zone.   

However, the reactions which emerged after the conduct of the first joint patrol indicated that the agreement was moving forwards, and explained Erdogan’s threats in the context of media statements.  

In the meantime, the leadership of the Global Coalition held a meeting with the leadership of the Tel Abyad Military Council and the presidency of the Autonomous Administration in the city on September 15 to discuss the US coordination mechanisms within the “security mechanism” agreement.  

The meeting was attended by Col. Turner, deputy commander of the CJTF-OIR and the co-presidency of the Autonomous Administration of Tel Abyad and well as the leadership of the Tel Abyad Military Council.   

The meeting shed light on the mechanism for the return of the refugees in Turkey according to the “security mechanism” agreement, and stressed the need for the return to be voluntary.  

For his part, and on the margins of the meeting, OIR spokesman Col. Myles Caggins issued a statement in which he said that the Coalition finds itself “committed in succeeding the security mechanism for the sake of strong partnership with the SDF.”   

Meanwhile, Tel Abyad Military Council co-commander Roseil Zenarin declared her full commitment to the terms of the security mechanism, and said: “We are cooperating with the Civil Council and the Internal Security Forces to secure the area to enhance its stability.”  

The next day, American and Turkish helicopters were monitoring the process of filling the tunnels in the western villages of the city of Sere Kaniye to complete the first phase of the implementation of the agreement.

The last group of the YPG withdrew from the border between Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad on September 21.

That withdrawal process took place after filling its trenches at three border points east of Tel Abyad, so that the second US-Turkish patrol would start on September 24.   

A convoy of YPG withdrawing from Sere Kaniye in implementation of the security mechanism agreement – Muhammad Habash – North Press

In light of the continued Turkish threats to attack “east of the Euphrates,” the third patrol, which was the last one, was conducted on October 4, days before Ankara declared war.   

The Turkish threats were matched by statements by the US Defense and State Secretaries, in which they affirmed “Washington’s continued determination to commit to the security mechanism,” which were not applied on the ground.   

War and American withdrawal 

It seems that the US-Turkish agreement did not work according to the two-state declaration, as Turkey, which wanted to “address its concerns” at the borders where the world describes as “legitimate concerns,” started its military offensive on October 9 with air strikes and ground incursions.   

Turkey did not only target this “safe zone”, but it extended to all cities in northeastern Syria on the border. 

The bombardment reached the city of Derik in the far northeast. The city of Qamishli and its surrounding towns were also targeted, in addition to areas in Kobani.   

The bombardment amounted to war crimes that were not limited to ethnic cleansing by emptying the cities of Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad, but included crimes against humanity and the use of internationally prohibited weapons, according to medical organizations.  

With Turkey’s imposition of this reality, the US seemed to be impassive despite the fact that the representative of its State Department, known as “George”, announced that his country would guarantee the implementation of the “security mechanism” agreement on August 22 during his meeting with the SDF.   

In the same meeting, Col. Karl confirmed that “US forces will remain in the region in the event that Turkey brings in its military forces.”   

Karl stressed that the “security mechanism” agreement does not allow Turkey’s intervention, and that the agreement does not include any step that allows Turkey to have a permanent presence in Syria, but all this has not manifested on the ground.   

Contrary to pledges by American officers, the Turkish offensives that followed a phone call between the Turkish and US presidents on October 6 coincided with the announcement of the decision to withdraw US forces from the border areas.  

Within hours, the matter developed into the withdrawal of US forces from most areas of northeastern Syria, as the first convoy of US forces left the area and headed towards the Iraqi Kurdistan region on October 21.  

US armored vehicles withdrawing from Sirrin base in Kobani countryside during Turkish offensive – North Press

The US forces withdrew from their points in the village of Tal Arqam, 5 km west of Sere Kaniye, a day after the Erdogan – Trump phone call that created a state of panic among the residents of the city, which was emptied of its residents.

This also took place at a time when Col. Karl stressed during the meeting that was leaked by North Press at the time that “the forces present in the points near Tal Arqam will remain in place.”  

He emphasized that additional forces would be brought to the area in order to help conduct the patrols.   

During the meeting, Karl also said that the US relationship with the SDF is based on transparency and frankness, and that any Kurdish-Turkish conflict puts the US position regarding the issues of preserving stability and eliminating ISIS at risk.   

“The issue of the exit of US forces from Syria will not be forthcoming. The US administration has begun to develop new strategies for the continuation of the fight against ISIS,” he added.  

However, the continuation of the Turkish offensives for two consecutive weeks was sufficient reason to doubt the seriousness of US concerns about ensuring that ISIS does not return.  

Civilians sheltering at the Global Coalition base in Kharab Ashq, Kobani before the US forces withdrawal – Muhammad Habash – North Press

The indiscriminate bombardment of the Turkish army after its incursion into the vicinity of Ain Issa town in the countryside of Raqqa led to the escape of a number of ISIS militants, while the armed opposition groups that participated in the offensive alongside Turkey freed “hundreds of women and children of ISIS of Arab and foreign nationalities and drove them to unknown places, according to SDF sources.”    

The offensive also caused hundreds of civilian casualties, and displaced about 300,000 people from Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad areas to the cities of Hasakah and Qamishli, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and local organizations.

Civilians fleeing the Turkish bombardment on Sere Kaniye – Muhammad Habash – North Press

The Turkish bombardment resulted in the destruction of vital centers such as the Alouk water station and public facilities, in addition to widespread killing, looting and destruction carried out by the Turkish-backed armed groups, according to local, international, and human rights organizations.

Prepared by Sherwan Youssef and Hamza Hamki.