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3 Deadly Attacks in Northern Syria Add to Rising Tension
Civilians run from the scene of an explosion in the Turkish-held town of Azaz in northern Syria on Jan. 31, 2021. (Nayef Al-Aboud/AFP via Getty Images)

3 Deadly Attacks in Northern Syria Add to Rising Tension

At least 12 dead, 7 of them civilians, in attacks blamed on Kurds linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK

In a span of 24 hours, three blasts, including an attack on a Syrian opposition checkpoint, rocked northern Syria in areas under the control of the Turkish military, Syrian opposition and Kurdish militias.

A car bomb on Sunday killed at least 12 people, including seven civilians, and scores more were wounded in two separate incidents in Turkish-held northern Syria.

The attacks took place in highly congested and densely populated areas, which are near government buildings and an NGO cultural center.

Obaida Hitto, a Turkey-based expert on Syrian politics, told The Media Line that the attacks show the boldness of those behind them, but it doesn’t really reveal their identity.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but Ankara usually points the finger at Kurds, who it calls “terrorists,” linked to its outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

“There is lack of security, there’s no oversight on the security operations that are going on these areas. People are becoming lackadaisical,” Hitto said.

He said that it is possible that the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, is behind the attack. Turkey regards the YPG as a terrorist group tied to the PKK inside its own borders and has staged incursions into Syria in support of Syrian rebels to push it from the Turkish frontier.

“But it’s possible that other actors could be behind it as well including people who are working at the behest of the Assad regime, or people working with a DAESH (Islamic State) kind of actor and consider people living in these areas as infidels,” Hitto also said.

One of the explosions targeted a checkpoint manned by pro-Turkish rebels near the town of Al-Bab, killing five fighters, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog.

These attacks are a familiar occurrence in areas of northern Syria held by the Turkish military and its Syrian alliance.

There is lack of security, there’s no oversight on the security operations that are going on these areas. People are becoming lackadaisical

Ankara now retains a large military presence in the area, deploying thousands of troops in the last remaining rebel enclave.

Aron Lund, a Middle East researcher specializing in Syria at the Swedish Defense Research Agency (FOI) told The Media Line that the situation in the war-torn country is chaotic where “several different but interlinked processes are at play simultaneously.”

“Turkey and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are in conflict, but so are the Syrian Democratic Forces and Assad’s government. Russia straddles all these divides and talks to all sides, while working to improve the position of its Syrian partner, Assad. The United States is also present through a small force embedded with the Syrian Democratic Forces, which serves to deter Turkish, Russian or Syrian government attacks,” he said.

Lund adds to the mix the Islamic State cells that were once in charge and which he says are trying to “stir the pot and create the conditions for a return, after being defeated in 2017-2019.”

Turkey, which is allied with some rebel groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is in control of the area where the explosion occurred.

“Turkey appears to be trying to push forward, either to conquer new territory for itself and its Syrian rebel allies, like it did in October 2019, or to force the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Americans to hand over more Kurdish-controlled territory to the Russians and the Syrian army,” said Lund.

Former US President Donald Trump ordered the pullout in 2019 of American military forces on the ground in Syria, leaving Washington’s Kurdish allies alone to fend for themselves. The Kurds have been a key partner and its fighters have been instrumental in the US-backed military campaign against the Islamic State organization.

Unlike the previous US administration, the new Biden White House doesn’t see eye to eye with Turkey and Russia on Syria, and that the Americans are eying a comeback in Syria, with greater force, Hitto says

“It’s too soon to say that the Americans are the ones who are turning a blind eye to the attacks that are being planned” in areas controlled by the Americans or by their ally, the Kurds, according to Hitto. He said that there are many actors in the YPG-controlled areas other than the Americans including the Russians, some Arab countries, the Assad regime, Iran and locals.

“The Syrian and Russian governments may see an opportunity to make the US presence more costly and awkward, by stirring up local conflict and undercutting the independence of the Syrian Democratic Forces,” said Lund.

Meanwhile, in northeast Syria, tension has been on the rise between Kurdish security forces and Syrian government supporters. On Sunday, the Kurdish forces opened fire at pro-government protesters, killing one person and wounding several others.

Damascus and the Kurds have avoided military confrontations and have been able to get along for the most part during nearly a decade of conflict.

Syria’s Kurdish minority with its armed groups control a large swath of the northeast of the war-torn country, but government forces are stationed there, including in the main regional cities of Hasakeh and Qamishli. Lund says the northeast part of Syria has seen a “sharp deterioration in mixed cities like Qamishli and Hasakeh, where the Syrian Democratic Forces have overall control and rule all Kurdish regions, but pro-government militias remain based in Arab enclaves and the government retains control over many important institutions.”

Lund says this tension “plays out along Kurdish-Arab lines, and there is certainly an ethnic element to it, but there are political and economic interests at stake.” The Kurds in Syria have built up their own semi-autonomous authorities in the northeast of the country during the civil war, although some state institutions remain.

Syria’s civil war, which began in 2011, has killed more than 387,000 people and displaced millions. Assad’s forces have used an iron fist to quell anti-government protests.

 

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