After several quiet months on the Turkish-Syrian border, with sporadic assassinations by Turkey of People's Protection Units (YPG) leaders linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), tensions have escalated in recent days. Turkish forces have intensified their attacks against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeastern Syria and targeted PKK hideouts along the Turkish-Iraqi border.

This escalation is unfolding against the backdrop of the suicide blast in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, on Oct. 1 that targeted the Interior Ministry. The Turkish government has claimed that the two attackers were PKK members who had entered the country from Syria, while the PKK announced that they were affiliated with its Liwa al-Khalidun Brigade, and that one of them set off a bomb strapped to his body.

The Khalidun Brigade, which according to the PKK carried out the attack, had never conducted armed operations inside Turkey before. The brigade consists of several sleeper cells affiliated with the PKK that act as reserve forces, according to previous statements by party leaders. PKK leader Murat Karayılan first revealed the brigade’s presence in 2016 during a press conference, stating that “it is fully prepared and willing to carry out sacrificial action when necessary.”

The Ankara blast is the first operation the PKK has carried out since it declared in June the end of its Feb. 6 unilateral ceasefire following the devastating earthquake that hit southern Turkey and northern Syria.

Hours after the Ankara blast, Turkish officials promised to retaliate by striking PKK targets in Syria and Iraq. Turkey then carried out 20 airstrikes against PKK targets in northern Iraq. Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan issued a statement in which he said that his country would “target PKK structures in Syria and Iraq,” adding that all PKK and YPG structures and facilities in the two countries were “legitimate targets.”

Following Fidan’s statement, the first strikes were carried out in the Syrian city of Hasakah. Turkish intelligence announced the bombing of a car carrying a leader known as “Mazloum Afrin,” who was among those who planned the Taksim bombing in Istanbul last year. A few hours later, a Turkish drone bombed a brick factory used by the SDF as a military base in the village of Safia on the outskirts of Hasakah.

On the morning of Oct. 5, Turkey intensified its airstrikes and drone attacks in several areas in northern and northeastern Syria. Sources in Qamishli and Hasakah confirmed that “there were many military aircraft passing overhead, with barely any time between flights.” The airstrikes continued over the following days, targeting a total of 145 SDF locations in Syria.

The Turkish airstrikes targeted many military headquarters and vital facilities in Hasakah Governorate, Aleppo’s eastern countryside, and Raqqa’s northern countryside. Among the targets were the brick factory in Hasakah, SDF headquarters in Qamishli, the Odeh oil field in Qahtaniyah, and oil refineries in the village of Kardahol. In Aleppo, Turkish warplanes launched airstrikes against the town of Tall Rifat and the Menagh Military Airbase, in addition to SDF bases in the town of Ain Issa in Raqqa’s countryside.

Like previous Turkish military operations, the current one came as a response, although there are several noteworthy changes in terms of Ankara’s military and operational strategies this time around.

The first is related to the geographical scope of the operation. Over the past few years, Turkish military action consisted of precise and targeted attacks against active SDF leaders affiliated with the PKK within a limited geographic radius of no more than 10 km from the border. These actions were also coordinated with the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and Russia, as Turkey has had coordination and collaboration agreements with both of these parties since its “Operation Peace Spring” in Syria in October 2019.

This time, however, the military operation was much different, both in terms of its geographical scale and the nature of the targets. Several airstrikes were conducted near the city of Hasakah, about 70 km from the Turkish border. The area of operations was also expanded to include territories controlled by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) in Hasakah, Aleppo, and Raqqa. A video shared by the Turkish Ministry of Defense showed warplanes carrying out night raids against SDF targets in Hasakah.

A second turning point in the current military operation is the fact that Turkish targets are no longer limited to leaders affiliated with the PKK or those who are loyal to it within the SDF. Rather, Ankara’s strategy going forward is to strike oil infrastructure, including oil fields and refineries, in addition to power plants, weapons depots, military camps, and administrative and financial headquarters. The purpose of this strategy is to dry up the PKK’s sources of funding in Syria, which are controlled by the SDF.

The third development is that Turkey is attempting to set new rules of engagement that are not agreed upon with other forces present in the region, especially the U.S. In fact, after a Turkish drone struck targets close to the Global Coalition military base in Tall Baydar on Oct. 5, a U.S. F-16 shot it down. By doing so, the U.S. drew a red line that Turkey is not allowed to cross, which is to target areas where Global Coalition forces are present.

Turkey’s operation comes at a difficult time for the AANES and its military wing, the SDF, whose areas of control in Deir ez-Zor have been under regular attack by tribal fighters since late August. These tensions are due to the recent events in northeastern Syria, where tribes are demanding independence, self-administration, and the ousting of PKK leaders from the area. This is also why the SDF’s response to the Turkish operation was timid, as it only mobilized in Aleppo’s eastern countryside, targeting a Turkish base near the town of Dabiq, where several Turkish soldiers were injured in the bombing.

Local residents, including many Kurds, are growing increasingly dissatisfied with the AANES, especially due to its relationship with the PKK. Many believe that the PKK’s Qandil cadres — those trained at its headquarters in the mountains of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, many of whom are present in Syria — are behind the insistence on a security solution to the problems in Deir ez-Zor as well as the Ankara suicide attack. These policies do not serve the region or even the interests of the AANES. Instead, they provide a justification for Turkish military operations inside Syria and fuel tensions with the Arab tribes in Deir ez-Zor.

The recent events in Deir ez-Zor and the current military operation following the Ankara blast put pressure on the AANES to take a clear stance and distance itself from the PKK. This is especially true given the explicit positions of major actors in eastern Syria, including the Global Coalition, towards the PKK; they have condemned the latter’s treatment of the local population and its attempts to destabilize the region and turn it into a battleground with Turkey, with no regard for its 3 million civilian inhabitants.


Samer al-Ahmed is a Syrian journalist and researcher who focuses on developments in northeastern Syria. He is a master’s student in international relations and has written multiple reports and research papers for Arab and international centers. You can follow him on Twitter @sameralahmadnq. 

Mohammed Hassan is a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI’s Syria Program and a master’s student in the Department of International Relations at the Higher School of Journalism in Paris. His writings focus on the regions of northern and eastern Syria, especially extremist Islamic groups and tribal societies.

Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.