QAMISHLI, Syria — Standing between slabs of marble in the Hasakeh province in northeast Syria, Muhammad Ali Al-Hassan* recalled the moment airstrikes hit the marble factory where he used to work.
“We heard a drone flying above the village, and seconds later the first strike hit in front of the marble factory at the entrance of the village on Nov. 20,” Al-Hassan told Al-Monitor on Thursday. “The second hit behind the village, and a mortar shell fell on empty fields.” Damaged, the factory closed, depriving Al-Hassan of work just days before his wife was due to deliver his third child.
But despite losing his weekly wage and some equipment, Al-Hassan is relieved to stay home since the bombing in the countryside of al-Qahtaniyah. “We feel fear and danger here,” he said, trembling as another drone crossed the sky.
Al-Hassan’s workplace was targeted on November 20, hours after Turkey launched Operation Claw-Sword against Kurdish-held areas of Syria and Iraq. The operation has been framed as a response to the Nov. 13 terror attack that killed six people in Istanbul. Turkish authorities attribute the bombing to Kurdistan’s Worker Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist group by Ankara, Washington and the EU. The PKK has claimed responsibility for attacks inside Turkey in the past, but denied being behind this bombing.
Syrian Kurdish officials say that the operation aims to wipe out the PKK as well as the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish group that plays a predominant role in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and is widely seen as an offshoot of the PKK. But the strikes have largely targeted civilian infrastructure.
Rights groups say such actions may have violated international humanitarian law and undermined the "stabilization" efforts of the US-led international coalition, which has poured billions into humanitarian programs across Syria in recent years to help roll back the influence of jihadist groups.
Since the launch of Claw-Sword, dozens of strikes have targeted vehicles and military outposts of the Syrian army and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the military branch of AANES.
The strikes hit all along Turkey’s border with AANES-led areas, including in densely populated cities. Tensions have been escalating since May, and the summer was marked by a drone campaign of targeted assassinations against soldiers and political figures in northeast Syria.
But Claw-Sword seems to have inflicted limited damage to the SDF so far. The Rojava Information Center (RIC), a local media center, has verified the death of 16 civilians, 19 SDF fighters and 25 Syrian army fighters as of November 25. Ankara claims it has killed “over 500” PKK fighters in a single month, but denied killing civilians. Turkey counts employees of AANES administration as military targets, but the claim is still probably highly inflated.
In parallel, civilian infrastructure have recorded heavy damage, and areas that seem to have no military significance were targeted. On the first day of the Claw-Sword operation, Turkish strikes destroyed a grain silo, a power station and a COVID-19 treatment center, local media reported. And in the following days, strikes continued to target oil fields and gas infrastructure.
As a NATO member, Turkey must follow international law, Bassam Al-Ahmad, the executive director of the legal NGO Syrians for Truth and Justice, told Al-Monitor. “The protection of civilians during armed conflict is a cornerstone of international humanitarian law, and this protection extends to public and private civilian property.”
Unfortunately, consistent disregard for international law has been a defining feature of the war in Syria. The Syrian regime and Russia continue to bomb displacement camps in opposition-held parts of Syria. The SDF has also been accused of striking civilians in opposition-held areas controlled by Turkish-backed groups.
Using civilian buildings to cover up military activities is a well-known technique adopted by insurgent groups around the world, and the SDF is known to have built a vast network of tunnels under major cities to shield themselves from Turkish bombs. Turkey claims the tunnels are used to carry out attacks across the border and has regularly used their existence as a pretext to bomb buildings.
Aram Hanna, a spokesperson of the SDF, told Al-Monitor. “For sure, we have built defensive fortifications that support our resistance against the Turkish occupation, which is based on our right to self-defense,” but he denied these could pose a threat to Turkey. Credible evidence of military use has yet to be provided by the Turkish army following its strikes.
Likening Turkey’s strategy to Russia’s in Ukraine, some say the goal of the ongoing campaign is to cut the AANES’ economic lifeline – crude oil production. “Turkey is trying to kill the livelihoods of people in north and east Syria, because the population in the area is entirely dependent on oil and its derivatives,” Al-Ahmad explained.
Dozens of strikes have targeted the oil-rich Jazira region of Hasakah over the past week, forcing the AANES to suspend operations. “Across the area ranging from Derik to al-Qahtaniyah, all the oil fields are idle, and pumps have stopped,” Abdul Latif Ahmed*, an employee of the oil company Oda told Al-Monitor on Thursday. He added that over 20 oil production sites had been targeted.
By targeting oil fields, Turkey is crippling the AANES’ finances and its ability to pay SDF fighters. But the strikes also directly affect civilians. “This will impact the local population and the AANES, it will impact electricity, gas, gasoline and diesel … especially as we approach winter,” Latif Ahmed said.
The strikes have exacerbated humanitarian needs in an area that is still reeling from a rampant cholera outbreak.
The operation may well affect ongoing counter-terrorism efforts, some analysts argue, and jeopardize the gains of “stabilization” programming in the region. “This escalation threatens the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS’s years-long progress to degrade and defeat ISIS,” the US Department of Defense warned on Wednesday, adding that it was “concerned by reports of the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure.”
Claw-Sword could escalate to a land offensive, Erdogan has repeatedly warned over the past week. Turkey has carried out four such land offensives since 2016, allegedly to roll back the influence of PKK and PYD at its southern border. Another operation would likely lead to new displacement in northeast Syria, where over 600,000 people — roughly one-fourth of the population — have been displaced since the start of the war, according to a 2022 humanitarian assessment.
*Some interviewees requested a pseudonym.