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Clashes Escalate in Northern Syria amid Ankara-Damascus 'Normalization' Talks

Clashes Escalate in Northern Syria amid Ankara-Damascus 'Normalization' Talks

Sunday, 15 January, 2023 - 07:45
Syrian fighters in a Turkish-backed faction in the northern countryside of Aleppo (AFP)

Clashes escalated between the Turkish forces and the regime forces in northern Syria, amid preparations for the foreign ministers meeting of Türkiye, Syria, and Russia, within the framework of the second phase of normalizing relations between Ankara and Damascus.

A Turkish soldier was killed, and others were injured, after the Turkish base in Hazwan village in al-Bab, east of Aleppo, was attacked from the areas of the Syrian regime forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the northern countryside of Aleppo.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a Turkish helicopter arrived at the base to transport the wounded to Türkiye.

The Turkish Ministry of Defense announced Saturday that one of its soldiers died from injuries sustained during Friday's attack without giving any further information.

Turkish forces and their loyal factions, known as the Syrian National Army (SNA), responded by shelling heavy artillery areas of the SDF and the regime forces.

The Turkish Ministry of Defense said in a statement on Saturday that 11 SDF members had been "neutralized" after they launched attacks on the areas of the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations.

The axes of contact between the Turkish forces and the loyal National Army factions, the regime forces, and the SDF in northern Syria witness continuous clashes, exchanges of shelling, and infiltration operations, without any change in the control map in the region.

- Escalation of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham

Mutual attacks escalated between Türkiye and Syria amid reports about rapprochement with the regime and preparations for the meeting of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Bashar al-Assad under the auspices of Russia.

Türkiye has killed 32 Syrian soldiers, including senior officers, since Ankara escalated its attack against SDF areas last November as part of the military operation "Claw-Sword."

The operation was launched after a terrorist bombing on Istiklal Street in Taksim, which Turkish authorities attributed to perpetrators following the orders of commanders of Kurdish units in Ain al-Arab.

At the same time, four members of the regime forces were killed, and two others were wounded in violent clashes with heavy weapons and machine guns during an attack launched by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), on Saturday, in the northern countryside of Latakia.

The Syrian Observatory reported that the HTS seeks to exploit widespread anger and discontent with the rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus by intensifying its attacks against regime forces on several axes in the de-escalation zones in northwestern Syria.

It noted that members of the HTS-affiliate Othman bin Affan Brigade carried out an attack targeting regime forces on the Nahshaba axis, where violent clashes took place between the two sides with heavy weapons and machine guns, amid reports about deaths and injuries.

Recently, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham intensified its operations against the regime forces on several axes in the de-escalation zones, causing many casualties.

- A military operation

Turkish presidency spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, announced Saturday that a ground military operation in Syria "is possible at any time."

"We continue to support the political process," Kalin told reporters from foreign media outlets, including AFP.

"A ground operation is possible any time, depending on the threats we receive."

Referring to the normalization of relations between Ankara and Damascus, Kalin said the initial meeting between the neighbors' defense ministers at the end of December could be extended, with foreign ministers possibly meeting in February.

He added, "We want security on our borders," referring to the presence of Kurdish forces on Syrian territory, asserting that Türkiye "never targets the Syrian state or Syrian civilians."

However, he pointed out that the security guarantees promised by Russia and the US after the last Turkish operation in Syria in 2019 were not met, and the Kurdish fighters did not withdraw 30 kilometers from the border as promised.

- Pressure on refugees

The Turkish opposition continues its campaign against the Syrian refugees, promising to deport them ahead of the Turkish elections scheduled for next June, which may be brought forward to May.

Former presidential candidate and a potential candidate for the upcoming presidential elections, the head of the opposition Homeland party, Muharrem Ince, vowed to deport Syrian refugees.

During a meeting with supporters, Ince said Erdogan's government granted thousands of Syrian refugees the Turkish citizenship, and they can now vote in the elections, noting that their votes would favor the ruling Justice and Development Party.

He warned that Syrian refugees had overstayed their welcome.

Ince pointed out that the opposition parties would take several steps when they win the elections, including closing the border and arresting Syrian refugees in the streets.

The Republican People's Party (CHP) pledged to send the Syrians to their homeland and see them off with "drums and zurnas" within two years of winning the next elections.

Recently, the party used billboards and banners in several Turkish cities to assert its rejection of the refugees, promising to withdraw from the migration agreement signed with the European Union in 2016.

Meanwhile, Erdogan announced a plan to send back home more than a million Syrian refugees, and announced last week that more than half a million Syrians had been deported to their homeland thanks to the Turkish military operations that cleared large areas in northern Syria.

About 3,733,982 Syrians received the Turkish Temporary Protection Identification Documents, with about 550,000 refugees in Istanbul alone.

Most Syrians in Türkiye suffer from difficult living conditions in light of the high prices, low wages, and the campaigns against them.

The Turkish Migration Directorate announced that 124,441 illegal immigrants were deported last year, including 58,758 Syrians who returned voluntarily to Türkiye's "safe areas" in northern Syria.

The Turkish Ministry of Defense reported that the ongoing meetings and discussions between Türkiye and the Syrian regime focus on several issues, including combating terrorism, the voluntary and safe return of Syrian refugees, and achieving stability through the political solution.

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