The Turkish invasion in October 2019 of the Ras-al-Ayn and Tal Abyad regions of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria shocked the entire world, and led to widespread condemnation and major changes to the political and military situations in the region. It received media coverage across the globe and world leaders in the United States, Russia, France, and other major countries were forced into taking action in order to reflect the rapidly changing status quo. Despite several ceasefire agreements and the line of control now remaining largely static, the violence has not stopped, and civilians continue to suffer attacks by Turkish-backed militias. In recent months, this violence has been especially concentrated around the town of Ayn Issa.
Ayn Issa is a town that has suffered greatly due to the ongoing Syrian Civil War, and has changed hands multiple times. It was seized by Daesh during their conquest of Eastern and Northern Syria until June 2015, when it was liberated by the YPG and their allies during their Tal Abyad Offensive. Daesh briefly recaptured it, before the YPG and allied forces managed to liberate it for the second and final time from Daesh in July 2015, and have governed it ever since. It was threatened with violence again during Turkey’s so-called “Operation Peace Spring”. After capturing the areas in and around Ras-al-Ayn and Tal Abyad, Turkey and the militias they support pushed into the AANES towards the M4 Highway, arguably the most economically important road in the region, which runs across Syria’s border with Turkey, beginning in Latakia. This resulted in a failed attempt to capture Ayn Issa, as the town is strategically located on the highway itself, but the Turkish-backed groups were repulsed by SDF forces.
The town’s location on the M4 Highway, along with it becoming the base of the AANES administration in 2018, make it both an economically and politically significant town for the AANES, and a major step in the Turkish state’s plan to weaken the AANES. Since November 2020, clashes around the town have once again intensified, and take place every week, with civilian property being destroyed, and casualties on both sides, despite the ceasefire agreements that were made with Russia and America as guarantors. Some have predicted that the clashes are a precursor to a new Turkish operation, especially in light of the COVID-19 Pandemic and elections in America causing the major powers to be more focused on domestic issues. However, even without a full-scale operation and invasion taking place, the suffering of the people of Ayn Issa has continued due to these clashes. Nearly 7,000 civilians had fled the town by December 10th 2020, and residents of the town began protesting in front of the Russian Military Police’s base that was established there to monitor the situation as guarantors of the ceasefire agreement with Turkey.
The introduction of the Russian military and Syrian military units into the areas around Ayn Issa and Tel Tamer in order to act as a counter to the Turkish invasion has further complicated the Ayn Issa situation in recent months. As the clashes have escalated, both the Russian and Syrian militaries have stood by and allowed them to happen, with the SDF accusing Russia of attempting to force the AANES to turn Ayn Issa over to the Ba’athist Regime. This would reflect how Afrin became occupied as well, with the Russians allowing Turkey free reign to attack the Afrin region while Russia and the regime pressured the Idlib Governorate.
Overall, the ongoing situation in Ayn Issa continues to display the chaotic situation that resulted from the abrupt withdrawal of American forces in October 2019 and the Turkish invasion that followed. Turkish, Russian, and regime forces all became major influencers of events in regions of Syria that they previously had very little influence over, if any. With the competition between these powers continuing, what can be said to be certain is that the situation will remain complex and chaotic, the civilian population of the region will suffer the most, and Turkish-backed forces will continue their criminal campaigns so long as they are not held accountable in any way.