Last week, three Turkish soldiers and up to five members of the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) were killed in bombings in Syria. They were patrolling in Raqqa province when they attempted to search two cars and their occupants.
Opposition sources said two vehicles entered Saluq through an (SNA) checkpoint January 16 before being escorted to a joint Turkish-SNA headquarters, where they exploded.
Saluq was taken by SNA and Turkish forces from the Kurdish-run Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) during an offensive by Turkey and its allies against Kurdish forces last year. Nearby Tal Abyad was the site of notably heavy fighting.
The bombing was suspected to be the work of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which dominates the SDF. The YPG is seen by Turkey as an outgrowth of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which for decades has mounted a terrorist insurgency in southern Turkey using comparable tactics.
After Turkey’s intervention two years ago to take the Kurd-held Afrin Canton, Kurdish groups, including under the YPG and SDF umbrellas, announced resistance and insurgent operations to counter the Turkish advance. This intensified after Turkey began a broader intervention in the Kurdish-controlled north-eastern Syria last year.
What Turkey called Operation Peace Spring brought heavy fighting and contested reports of YPG bombings and suicide attacks.
Saluq’s bombings could be taken as a demonstration of YPG cells putting an insurgent campaign into practice.
This could appear related to the exchange January 20 of artillery fire between Turkish forces and the YPG. Reports said that, in Afrin, several people were killed, although that could not be confirmed.
The cost of such tactics is clear but the reasons for its use are opaque, defined by necessity but signifying little that is clear.
It may appear as if, after Turkey and its allies have taken territory from the YPG and forced it to retreat, Kurdish forces can only resort to insurgency actions against the SNA and attacks from a distance. The bombing in Saluq may demonstrate this.
However, one complication comes in the form of denials offered by an SNA faction that it was behind the bombing.
Division 20, an SNA unit, issued a statement January 17 in which it simultaneously denied having a hand in the bombings and accused members of Ahrar al-Sharqiya, another SNA unit, of being involved.
The two units have confronted each other in Aleppo recently, reports by the opposition-affiliated newspaper Enab Baladi stated, in disputes that included the intervention of senior SNA figures.
There is little evidence that one SNA faction was behind the bombing, aside from speculation about members of which unit died in the attack. This is hearsay until proven otherwise and could be the result of chance, or denote nothing of significance.
Rural Raqqa and territory newly occupied by Turkish and SNA forces have seen an increase in bombings, mainly attributed to the YPG, in any case.
Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst, said: ‘The Saluq bombing is more politically fraught because it killed Turkish soldiers but in concrete terms of the YPG/PKK insurgency against the areas held by Turkey and her proxies, this is a continuation of what has been happening since 2016.’
Nonetheless, the extent of the bombing campaign, whether it was sporadic or targeted and escalating, remains useful to determine.
Proclamations of resistance, by the YPG and others, imply more than notional support from residents for the bombing campaigns. As unpopular as Turkish forces and SNA fighters are, many of whom are accused of corrupt factionalism and brigandage, attacks on their patrols are unlikely to represent crystallised local opposition to new forces in town.
‘It is very difficult to tell how much popular support the PKK’s attacks have’, Orton said. ‘Logically, one would assume the Kurdish-majority Afrin is more supportive of the … insurgency than the Arab-majority Baris Pinari [Operation Peace Spring] zone but I would add a couple of caveats.
‘On the one side, it is clear from the way events unfolded in 2018 that the PKK had a lot less popular support in Afrin than had been assumed and, on the other side, tens of thousands of Kurds were displaced from Afrin by the Turkish operation and have been prevented from returning’, Orton said.
Population displacement has meant locals are both less trustful of the forces on their streets and harder to typify. No bombing campaign can claim popular support after almost a decade of war and numerous changes in territory.
The bombings appear more a part of a regular drumbeat of insurgent operations in territory taken from the YPG. They do not represent popular resistance and cannot be taken to signify escalation. However, in the continued use of such tactics, amid a period of sporadic bombings, the attacks in Saluq likely represent the shape of things to come.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.