News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Destruction after alleged Turkish shelling on Ayn Diwar on October 11 (via ANF)

Published

October 18, 2019

Written by

Oliver Imhof

Dozens of non combatants killed during latest Turkish attack on Kurdish regions of northern Syria.

Airwars monitors locally reported civilian harm from all Turkish air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria, as well as from Kurdish counterfire actions. Our database can be found here.

More than 120 civilian deaths have been locally alleged in eight days of fighting in northern Syria to October 16th, following a Turkish-led offensive, ‘Operation Peace Spring’, which began on October 9th.

In total Airwars researchers have tracked  between 102 and 126 reported civilian deaths resulting from air and artillery strikes by both sides. Between 71 and 85 fatalities were attributed to Turkish strikes by local sources in 64 incidents, while 31 to 41 non combatants were alleged killed by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) conducting counterfire strikes on Turkish and Syrian towns in 26 incidents.

Around 160,000 people have reportedly been displaced due to the fighting so far.

In the worst reported event to date, between 11 and 19 civilians were reported killed by a Turkish airstrike on a convoy heading from al-Jazira to Ras al-Ain. Four journalists were reportedly among those killed, and the strike supposedly injured up to 74 more people.

In addition, reports of executions of civilians have raised fears of more severe war crimes in the Kurdish-controlled parts of Northern Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is the backbone, had controlled the territory after defeating ISIS, with the loss of more than 12,000 Kurdish fighters. Observers fear that the jihadi organisation could resurface should the SDF lose control over ISIS prisons due to the Turkish offensive.

Historical data heightens worries for civilians

Casualty data from the latest Turkish incursion is included in a major online Airwars database, which maps all reported civilian harm in Iraq and Syria from alleged Turkish strikes since 2015. As many as 1,650 civilian deaths have been locally alleged in more than 360 incidents.

According to the Airwars grading system, between 433 and 763 civilians had already likely fallen victim to air and artillery strikes across three countries during two previous waves of Turkish attacks on Kurdish-controlled territories from 2015 until October 8th 2019.

Hostilities between the Turks and Kurds flared up shortly after Turkey briefly became involved in the anti-ISIS Coalition led by the US in Iraq and Syria in 2015. Ankara used the opportunity of intervention against ISIS to also attack the Kurds – who make up a large part of the population in the north of both countries. With Kurdish forces gaining strength over the course of the war, fears were sparked in Ankara of an independent Kurdistan which might pose a threat to Turkey’s ambition as a major regional power.

Turkish strikes also heavily targeted ISIS, in particular during the Battle for Al Bab at the end of 2016. That city was almost entirely destroyed in the fighting and between 308 and 585 civilians reportedly killed by Turkish actions, according to Airwars data. In parallel, Turkey has occasionally targeted Kurdish forces in northern Iraq where it also maintains a permanent military presence. The number of civilians killed there has been comparatively low, with Airwars research indicating between 24 and 29 fatalities to date.

Fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces once again escalated during Turkey’s ‘Operation Olive Branch’ in early 2018. That campaign, launched on January 20th by the Turkish military in cooperation with the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), targeted the canton of Afrin in northwest Syria near the Turkish border. The invasion targeted Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), mostly made up of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The SDF until then had controlled the Afrin canton, a de facto autonomous region in the mountainous border area. Ankara considers the YPG to be the Syrian arm of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) which it deems a terrorist organisation.

Frontlines during the 2018 Afrin campaign (via Wikimedia)

With Turkish and FSA forces progressing quickly through Afrin, the alliance took full control of the canton on March 24th 2018 after eight weeks of fighting. The operation drew heavy criticism at the time from various governments, which insisted that Turkey’s security concerns did not justify an invasion of neighbouring territory. Following the capture of the regional capital of Afrin city by Turkish forces, the SDF began an insurgency.

Over the past 18 months, Turkish military action had mostly involved sporadic clashes in Afrin and occasional airstrikes in the Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq, allegedly causing occasional civilian casualties. After the Kurds invited Syrian regime troops into parts of their remaining territory, a Turkish invasion had appeared less likely, given that Ankara does not want a confrontation with the two battle-hardened forces. US and Russian forces had also acted as buffers.

Instead the Turkish military increasingly made use of targeted killings to impair the Kurds, some of which were conducted by the newly designed Bayraktar TB2 drone that is also being heavily used in Libya.

This standoff between the two foes came to an end following President Donald Trump’s abrupt recent decision to abandon the Kurds and withdraw US troops from Syria This led directly to the latest Turkish offensive – which has the stated goal of creating a buffer zone between the two countries.

Third escalation

In response to the Turkish invasion, Kurdish forces struck a Russian-brokered deal with the Assad regime to help protect their Syrian territory – where they have enjoyed de-facto autonomy for several years. That agreement has raised fears of an open confrontation between Damascus and Ankara at their border. However, the Russian government seems intent on avoiding that scenario so far.

However, a Kurdish withdrawal as in Afrin seems unlikely on this occasion. Greater involvement by the Assad regime and Russia, both accused of deliberately targeting civilian neighbourhoods and institutions throughout the Syrian civil war, could mean new horrors for local populations.

In the most recent development, US Vice President Pence struck a reported ceasefire deal with Turkish President Erdogan on October 17th. That agreement pauses fighting for 120 hours – during which the Kurds are required to withdraw from a 32 km ‘safe zone’ between the two countries. With the Kurds rejecting any occupation by Turkey – while Syrian regime and Russian troops flow into the area – it is presently unclear how likely any such deal is to hold.

▲ Destruction after alleged Turkish shelling on Ayn Diwar on October 11 (via ANF)