Turkey’s war on Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad: Operation Peace Spring explained

Turkey has met with near-global condemnation for its 2019 offensive into North and East Syria. The invasion was conducted under the pretext of securing Turkey’s border from the threat of YPG attacks – though a Rojava Information Center investigation revealed that Turkey had experienced only one cross-border incident along its entire border with North and East Syria throughout 2019, while Turkish forces launched over 30 often-lethal attacks against civilians and farmers living along the border during the same period. Nonetheless, US President Donald Trump agreed to withdraw a skeleton force of US Army soldiers from along the border, opening the way for Turkey to launch its offensive on 9 October 2019.

More than the figures – 200,000 displaced within a week, hundreds killed – a number of high-profile rights violations have provoked an international response. Chief among these were the field executions of leading female Syrian politician Hevrin Khalef and other civilians by Turkish-backed faction Ahrar al-Sharqiya on 12 October, along with the 13 October airstrike on a civilian convoy heading into Sere Kaniye which left 12 civilians dead. The invasion also enabled the escape of hundreds of ISIS-linked individuals who had been being securely held by the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The invasion was slowed down following a military agreement between the Syrian Democratic Forces and Damascus on the one hand, and an agreement between Turkey and Russia on the other. The Syrian Democratic Forces and Autonomous Administration remain in military and political authority across North and East Syria, but thousands of kilometers of countryside and the border cities Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad have been occupied by Turkey, and regime troops have a limited presence along the border for the first time since their withdrawal from the region.

Our report ‘Shifting Power-Plays in North and East Syria’ gives a clear overview of these agreements, and who remains in control where across the chequerboard of Syria.

More troublingly yet, Turkey appears to be implementing the same policies of forcible demographic change in the newly-occupied regions of Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad as it has in Afrin, using Arab and Turkmen militias to drive out the local Kurdish population plus Yazidi and Christian minorities, replacing them with militiamen and their families under the control of the Turkish military and intelligence apparatus.

Our report ‘Turkey’s War Against Civilians’ gives a clear view of the civilian toll of the invasion, not only in terms of high-profile executions and massacres but also as regards attacks on humanitarian infrastructure and the use of violence to drive out Kurdish and minority populations and replace them with forces loyal to Turkey.

Though a new ‘status quo’ has been reached for the present, sporadic clashes continue, and observers expect a new operation, invasion and extension of the zone of occupation by Turkey in the short- to mid-term future, most likely targeting Kobane and/or Manbij. Meanwhile, demographic change, looting and violence continue apace in Turkey’s new zone of occupation.