Looming Threat of Invasion Keeps Northern Syria’s Residents on Edge

A recent agreement between the United States and Turkey prevented an imminent Turkish incursion into northeast Syria. Nevertheless, Turkey considers the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which control the country’s oil-rich north, to be a critical threat to national security, and a peaceful solution between the two sides remains elusive—meaning that the threat of a Turkish invasion still exists.

Turkish border as seen from Ras al-Ayn. Source: Navanti

Turkish border as seen from Ras al-Ayn. Source: Navanti

The border town of Ras al-Ayn is located directly in the path of a potential attack, and ongoing uncertainty over the area’s future has impacted all facets of daily life: from the health of the local economy, to the appearance of the town, to the psychological state of residents.

Navanti researchers visited Ras al-Ayn in summer 2019 to learn more about how the area has been affected by the specter of violence.

Unpredictability hampers economic growth

Residents told Navanti researchers that construction and real estate activity decreased over the summer as a Turkish attack appeared increasingly likely. Investors are wary to put money into even short-term projects that might disappear in a wave of future violence.

People are no longer building or rebuilding anything, or purchasing goods, because the Turks might invade. — Farmer, Ras al-Ayn

As a border town, Ras al-Ayn has historically benefited from trade. These days, people from neighboring areas hesitate to enter and conduct business due to the threat of violence and strict security measures imposed by local forces.

Shops in Ras al-Ayn. Source: Navanti

Shops in Ras al-Ayn. Source: Navanti

Ras al-Ayn’s local economy has traditionally been based on agriculture, but harvests have recently gotten smaller, according to local residents:

Agriculture has declined over the past three years for several reasons: a lack of support for farmers, bad weather conditions, inflation and a lack of fertilizers…in addition to the Autonomous Administration and Syrian government buying harvests at very low prices. — Retired state employee, Ras al-Ayn

Notably, Turkey’s threats of invasion and the accompanying decrease in investment and trade activity followed on the heels of widespread crop fires in northern Syria, which devastated fields around Ras al-Ayn, particularly in the villages of Raseem, Alia, and al-Saidyan.

Despite the recent slowdown in economic activity, some residents still manage to make a living through their fields. Others work for the local administration.

The administration’s institutions created work opportunities for hundreds of young men and women. The salary is no more than 150 USD [per month], but it’s better than the Syrian government’s salaries that don’t exceed 70 USD. — Farmer, Ras al-Ayn

Military zone

Kurdish forces have announced they are withdrawing from the border area with Turkey in a bid to reduce tensions.

A sign forbidding trucks from entering Ras al-Ayn is juxtaposed with a sign commemorating fallen SDF soldiers. Source: Navanti

A sign forbidding trucks from entering Ras al-Ayn is juxtaposed with a sign commemorating fallen SDF soldiers. Source: Navanti

Nevertheless, extensive fortifications in Ras al-Ayn indicate that the threat of fighting has not passed.

[The digging of defensive] tunnels destroyed entire neighborhoods and undermined buildings’ foundations. There are weapons and depots in residents’ houses, and you hear gunfire daily. The city isn’t safe, we don’t feel safe. — Mechanic, Ras al-Ayn

The SDF has stationed artillery in the southeastern and southwestern countrysides, and increased the number of soldiers and advisors in the area. Drones monitor Turkish movements on the other side of the border.

The security of Ras al-Ayn sits on a razor’s edge…everyone is afraid of bombing from the Turkish side. — Taxi driver, Ras al-Ayn

Aside from the psychological impact of looming violence on town residents, services have also suffered as authorities concentrate their energies on responding to an invasion.

Municipal services aren’t the same because of the military situation and [Turkish] threats. We’ve started to see soldiers everywhere in the city, while electricity and trash collection have gotten worse. — Farmer, Ras al-Ayn

Street scene in Ras al-Ayn. Source: Navanti

Street scene in Ras al-Ayn. Source: Navanti

The fate of Ras al-Ayn, like the rest of SDF-controlled Syria along the border with Turkey, depends on the state of US-Turkish relations—which are currently at a low point. A number of issues inform this relationship, most recently Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system. While the United States and Turkey signed an agreement in August to establish a safe zone in northeast Syria, the conditions remain vague, and residents of Ras al-Ayn will continue to wait anxiously for a more permanent solution so that they can return to their normal lives.