Turkey ramps up drone attacks, shelling, and air strikes in northern Syria as the region prepares for a ground invasion. 

Renewed Turkish drone attacks in northeastern Syria underwrite Turkey’s renewed threats to launch another ground offensive targeting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters that Turkey considers a terrorist group.

These threats continue to occur amid the widespread humanitarian suffering in Turkey and Syria, exacerbated by the earthquake that struck both countries on February 6, killing over 41,000 people and injuring tens of thousands so far – a number that continues to mount.

After 12 years of civil war, northern Syria, which remains largely under Turkish occupation, is in desperate need of aid. In many ways, the quake has returned international attention to the war-torn region.

Possible Turkish Ground Invasion

The earthquakes came amid the imminent possibility of a Turkish ground invasion. In a January interview with Al-Monitor, SDF Commander Mazlum Kobane expressed that they take Ankara’s threats seriously, saying he expects an attack in the northeast “in February.”

Since the start of the year, Turkey has carried out eight drone strikes on northern and eastern Syria, killing three civilians and wounding a further 26, according to the Rojava Information Center (RIC), a volunteer media and research agency in the country’s northeast.

There have been “a few drone strikes on vehicles in recent days after a pause in these kinds of attacks,” the RIC told The Defense Post.

SDF Commander Newroz Ahmed confirmed the increased strikes. “It’s been months since the Turks have started operating drones against our forces,” he said. “We have been studying and preparing for self-protection of our forces because we’ve seen intense drone attacks.”

Ahmed said there have been no major losses in the SDF but that the “Turkish army is continuing to attack us by targeting civilian infrastructure and locations.”

The renewed likelihood of an invasion comes on the back of two months of attacks since November 20, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan initiated a large-scale aerial assault using combat aircraft, armed drones, shelling, and artillery against northern Syria and Iraq.

Erdogan vowed that another ground invasion of Syria would follow, which would mark Turkey’s fourth invasion since 2016.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech. Photo: Adem Altan/AFP

Rapprochement Between Syria and Turkey?

While the drumbeat of war continues, a possible rapprochement between the longtime foes seems on the table after top defense and security officials held their first public meeting in over a decade on December 23.

The meeting caused unease for several actors, including Kurdish militias, Syria’s armed and political opposition, Israel, and Syrian refugees living in Turkey. But according to an RIC spokesperson, it must be seen within the context of the upcoming elections in Turkey.

“The issue of the Syrian refugees in Turkey has become a large one for much of the electorate,” the spokesperson explained.

“Many in Turkey want rapprochement with [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] as part of a solution. For this reason, the opposition bloc (of 6 parties) in Turkey are making rapprochement with Assad a key election promise. Therefore Erdogan, seeking to counter the opposition’s offer, is also trying to promise rapprochement,” the spokesperson said.

However, he added, it’s unclear how “true” the Turkish president’s efforts are. “Any meaningful and lasting rapprochement would require both sides to make serious concessions and compromises. So far, we have not seen any concrete concessions being made or promised, from either Ankara or Damascus.”

Furthermore, he continues to invoke “terrorism” rhetoric regarding the need for a ground invasion. During past key election moments, Erdogan launched ground operations right before and witnessed his approval ratings spike.

Ground Invasion Risk Remains High

Having threatened an imminent ground invasion in January on the back of months of attacks, Turkey has said the offensive would be revenge for the November 13 bombing in Istanbul that killed six people.

According to the Syrian Democratic Council, the SDF’s political wing, Turkey has been using its drones — notably the Bayraktar TB2 and Bayraktar Akinci — in Syria against the SDF, which America trained and equipped to fight in the US-led anti-ISIS coalition.

“The Turks know that we do not have techniques or the drones and that is why they keep using drones on us. Drones are difficult to counter and even more difficult to deactivate,” SDF Commander Ahmed explained.

“Since we all know that the Turkish attack may be bigger than expected, we are preparing our people to be aware and prepared for border attacks,” he added.

Bayraktar TB2 drone at the Geçitkale military air base near Gazimağusa (Famagusta) in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Photo: AFP

The Turkish Armed Forces have occupied areas of northern Syria since August 2016. During that time, Turkey has mounted three major attacks on the SDF for its links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party.

According to the Syrian Democratic Council, since June 2020, there have been 68 Turkish drone strikes, with the rate of strikes increasing since August 2022.

“They are targeting women, SDF leaders, children, and civilians,” Sinam Sherkany Mohamed, representative of the Syrian Democratic Council, told The Defense Post.

In December, the Pentagon warned Turkey against a ground invasion after strikes threatened US troops. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed his “strong opposition” to a new Turkish military operation in Syria.

Mounting Humanitarian Crisis

Meanwhile, Turkish airstrikes continue to displace families, contribute to fuel shortages and significant power cuts, and suspend schools and aid organizations’ work. This is exacerbating the state of despair inflicting Arabs, Kurds, and other communities living in the region, according to Human Rights Watch.

This comes after over 10 years of conflict that has destroyed Syria’s infrastructure and social services. There are currently over 4 million people displaced in northern Syria. A new wave of hostilities will only exacerbate the crisis.

“The international community needs to put pressure on Turkey to stop these drone attacks,” Mohamed said. “We don’t need more refugees, more displacement, we need stability in the region so young people can find jobs and not leave their country.”