Significant clashes along Syria’s north west border

Originally commissioned January 2016

The outcome of the current clashes, between at least four different groups, for control of a western stretch of the Turkish-Syrian border will have major consequences for the Syrian conflict; currently it represents Daesh’ only remaining supply line to the north.

  • For opposition groups in northern Syria the border represents a key supply line and therefore represents a continuing risk to recent regime gains.
  • For Daesh, the border is its last remaining supply line north and remains strategically significant due to losses elsewhere
  • Capturing this stretch would give Kurds control over almost the entire border, Turkey’s concern over which could complicate the US-Kurdish relationship.

At least four groups are fighting for control of one of the few remaining stretches of the Turkish-Syrian border not under the control of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition. These groups are also fighting for the adjacent hinterlands, northern Aleppo province, without which border control cannot be exploited. For opposition groups in northern Syria, the border crossing represents a vital supply line, especially as they come under increased pressure from regime forces. Regime forces have almost entirely secured the Latakia province section of the border and are steadily advancing on the border areas in Idlib province, as well as cutting routes from these areas to the hinterlands. Opposition resistance to regime forces attempting to surround Aleppo has been made possible, partly due to weapons brought across the Turkish border. The opposition requires access to the border and the hinterland leading to Aleppo, approximately 60km south, to sustain their resistance efforts. Regime forces are however steadily encircling Aleppo, advancing westwards to the north of the city. Recapturing Aleppo would bolster the regime’s position while weakening the opposition but the border represents a continued risk to this objective.

The border area is currently under Daesh control but facts on the ground are fluid. This north-western stretch of border is Daesh’s only remaining supply line to the north, having been denied access to the eastern Turkish-Syrian border by SDF advances. Daesh’s supply lines from the border to Raqqa have been degraded by regime advances to the east of Aleppo and by SDF advances to the north of Lake Assad. This border area has always been more tightly policed and Turkey has recently doubled efforts to prevent Daesh movements across its border. Nonetheless, Daesh has strategic interests in keeping some control of the border as it is primary routes for foreign fighters joining the group, a trend to which Turkey cannot entirely stop.

Meanwhile, with the capture of Tishreen dam, the SDF secured a way of advancing west across the Euphrates. Kurdish forces advancing west of the Euphrates had been a ‘red line’ for Turkey, concerned over the support that Kurdish gains south of the border would have for Kurdish militants in Turkey. Turkey is currently seeing a massive resurgence of its conflict with Kurdish militants. Turkish forces have previously shelled Syrian Kurdish forces when they advanced too far westwards; however, Ankara has not yet acted against SDF advances west of the Euphrates. SDF has claimed it is only sending Arab and Turkmen fighters across the Euphrates to appease Ankara’s concerns and their advances have not come near the border. However, the SDF may be tempted to take advantage of fighting among opposition and Daesh to push forward and seize the border for itself.

Doing so would give Kurdish-dominated SDF complete control over nearly the entire Turkish-Syrian border, save for the Idlib and Latakia province sections. Turkey is unlikely to quietly accept such an outcome despite its diminished ability to engage south of the border since Russia bolstered air defences in northern Syria, following Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet. Complicating matters further is the SDF close cooperation with the international coalition fighting Daesh in the region. Indeed, US air support has made the SDF’s capture and continued control of Tishreen dam possible. If the SDF pushes for control of this stretch of the border, removing Deash in the process, the anti-Daesh coalition will be faced with an intensification of its ongoing Ankara dilemma.

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