Two weeks ago, there was so much traffic in the main streets of the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar “you could not find a place to park”, said one store proprietor. Days after Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring to rid northeast Syria of a Kurdish-led militia Turkey deems a threat, the once buzzing frontier city is all but a ghost town.
During rush hour, metal grates cover up most shops. Between 70 and 90 per cent of the people have been evacuated. Schools have been closed, and women and children hurried onto buses and rushed to relatives and dormitories in other towns.
“We are far from our children, and we are suffering,” says one shopkeeper, who spoke on condition he would not be named, for fear of angering the Turkish authorities. “There’s no business, and our debt collectors are demanding the payments without mercy.”
Late on Thursday, the government in Ankara agreed to a five-day cessation of hostilities brokered by the US, but fighting continued throughout Friday and there were questions whether the Turkey’s Syrian allies or the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) Ankara considers a terrorist organisation would honour any deal.
“Despite the agreement to halt the fighting, air and artillery attacks continue to target the positions of fighters, civilian settlements and the hospital in Ras al-Ayn,” Mustafa Bali, a spokesperson for the YPG, wrote on Twitter on Friday.
But by Saturday, the border appeared much quieter, and the fragile ceasefire appeared to be holding.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking to reporters on Friday, warned that the operation would commence on Tuesday if the Kurdish-led militias did not depart the buffer zone – as Turkey and the US agreed to.
Turkey’s war was meant to bring stability to its border and rid the country of a Kurdish-led experiment to its south that Ankara deems a threat to its territorial integrity.
But Operation Peace Spring, as the incursion is officially called, may instead further destabilise both Turkey and northeast Syria. It has already disrupted southern Turkey and threats to the country’s trade at a time of economic trouble. And it has rocked northeast Syria in ways that will further unsettle Turkey.
“It could potentially drag Ankara into many sub-conflicts that I don’t think they have contemplated through all the way,” said Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Erdogan, answering a question by The Independent on Friday, said the conflict was inevitable, and that the YPG was threatening to destabilise Turkey.
“We have border districts there along that area. Those areas have always been violated and attacked by the terrorists,” he said.
“There was infiltration,” he said. “Those terrorist groups were somehow in touch with each other. They were smuggling weapons in and out. Had we remained silent, had we not intervened a lot could have happened. That’s why we had to stop it.
The YPG has denied taking part in cross border operations, but has acknowledged some overlap in its leadership and that of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – a Kurdish separatist group banned in Turkey.
But the operation, which began 9 October, has already brought a measure of chaos to southeast Turkey as well as Syria. During three days along the frontier in several towns adjacent to crucial Syrian battlegrounds, The Independent witnessed sporadic gunfire, airstrikes, artillery and mortar rounds, as well as damaged buildings, traumatised civilians, and preparations for even more refugees than the 3.5 million Syrians already officially registered in Turkey.
I am sad that people are being displaced. I just wish this had never happened
Abdullah Aksak, mayor of Ceylanpinar
“We are trying to prepare for a large number of refugees,” said Abdullah Polat, co-mayor of the city of Suruc, across the border from the flashpoint Syrian city of Kobani.
Authorities in the city have set up a crisis desk to manage the possibility that thousands of refugees would come over the border to escape the conflict, but have already had to find housing for residents of 40 Turkish villages along the border that have been struck by cross-border shells.
Beneath an idyllic grove of trees, nearly 200 soldiers stood at attention, just hundreds of metres from the wall separating Syria from Turkey. Nearby, farmers harvested cotton from fields. Further down the road, there were about half a dozen armoured personnel carriers and two tanks.
Along the border near the mostly Kurdish city of Suruc, dozens of villages have been evacuated for fear of getting caught in the crossfire. Parents place their children with relatives as they make risky forays to the border to harvest crops.
Roadways here have been flooded with military vehicles carrying Turkish military personnel. Syrian National Army fighters, remnants of the rebel guerillas who battled against the regime of Bashar al-Assad for years, could be seen gathering near a border outpost outside Tal Abyad, just a couple hundred metres from a playground in Akcakale.
In Ceylanpinar, authorities have coordinated a large-scale evacuation of the city, placing thousands of people in nearby Viransehir, where the displaced are provided with housing, medical and psychological assistance, as well as food and even nappies.
Missiles from the Syrian side have hit villagers, killing at least 21 civilians on the border.
“Of course we are sad,” said Abdullah Aksak, mayor of Ceylanpinar. “I am sad that people are being displaced. I just wish this had never happened. Two children are killed here. There are some injured people in hospitals. Nearly 80 mortar attacks targeted our district.”
Turkey’s southeast has been roiled by occasional violence repeatedly since the 1980s when it became the setting for the battle between the state and the PKK. Checkpoints, army patrols and sporadic fighting are woven into people’s lives. Turks have also repeatedly launched military operations against the PKK in Iraq over the years.
But the scale of what the Turks are attempting in their cross-border intervention in Syria is unparalleled.
While Turks say they successfully dislodged the YPG from Afrin, in Syria’s northwest, last year at minimal cost and disruption, Khalifa says “this is not Afrin”.
“This is 25 per cent of Syria, including a wide-open desert that the international coalition has been barely able to control.”
There are other potential unintended consequences to the Syria intervention. One reason why so many Arabs in Syria’s northeast signed onto the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces was the promise that it would keep the regime at bay. Now that the Kurds have cut a deal with Damascus, the Arab fighters are left with stark choices: potentially submit to the Assad regime they fought against, join with jihadi groups or Isis that continue to confront Damascus or flee to Turkey.
“They’re coming every day via smugglers,” says Polat.
Syrian refugees have already changed the character of the border cities. Akcakale and Tal Abyad are border neighbours akin to El Paso and Ciudad Juarez along the Mexican-US frontier. Each means “white palace” in its respective language, and in both towns residents speak both Turkish and Arabic.
Some 400,000 Syrian refugees live in Sanliurfa province, which had a population of about 1.8 million before the conflict south of Turkey’s began. Some 125,000 refugees live in Akcakale alone, nearly doubling the city’s population, and requiring additional expenditures for health, sanitation and education services.
“Fifty per cent of the people on that side moved to this side,” said Mehmet Yalcinkaya, mayor of Akcakale. “You can imagine the pressures that are already on us.”
But the more Turkey pushes its way into densely populated areas the more they risk creating more displacement, undermining its aim of convincing some Syrians to move back to their country. On Friday, the UN said 1,700 people had crossed the border into Iraq since the fighting begun.
“People are already leaving toward the Iraqi border,” says Khalifa. “It’s going to have a counter effect than what Turkey wanted. The more they push into densely populated areas the more this could entail significant civilian casualties, and displace many of the region’s Kurdish inhabitants.”
Nearly 7,000 Isis fighters are either in prison or under heavy watch in northeast Syria. In addition to holding them in prison, the YPG had developed a system of alliances with local tribes to retrofit former Isis fighters into SDF units, or back into civilian life. Dislodging the YPG could dismantle this complicated system, and give Isis new life.
Before Operation Peace Spring there had been sporadic attacks from the other side, never clear whether they were stray rounds, responses to Turkish military operations, or launched by factions not under the control of the YPG.
But by and large, the border area has been secure, allowing residents on both sides to recover from the enormous human and economic toll of the first years of the Syria war. Back then, numerous armed factions, including Isis, fought for control of Turkey’s northeast and tens of thousands of refugees fled across the border, changing perhaps forever the character of Turkish cities.
Rojava may have been a threat to Turkey but it has been largely an abstract one, posing no imminent threat, and making Operation Peace Spring resemble the wars of choice waged by the US and Israel.
Though many Turks back the intervention, they also question whether it should be pursued and are relieved by the temporary halt.
We have to ask why these 21 civilians and six soldiers have been killed
Canan Kaftanoglu, Turkish opposition politician
“We have to ask why these 21 civilians and six soldiers have been killed,” said Canan Kaftanioglu, a Turkish opposition politician. “We will see in the future whether the operation has destabilised the region.”
The conflict may also hurt Turkey’s already fragile economy. Turkey’s unemployment increased in July by 3.1 per cent compared to the previous year, bringing it to a decade-long high of 13.9 per cent, according to official statistics, while youth unemployment reached 27.1 per cent.
On Tuesday, German automotive giant Volkswagen confirmed that it was delaying a decision on whether to build a new plant in Turkey’s Izmir over opposition to the Syria operation.
Turks living along the border are terrified about the prospect of the Turkish armed forces facing off against the Syrian regime and its Russian patrons. Repeatedly, they said they were desperate to return to their normal lives.
“Look around here,” said one shopkeeper in Ceylanpinar. “Do you see any customers? We are worried about the next phase. My children can’t go to school. They’re in a temporary place now.”
Sat in front of full-length portraits of Erdogan and the founder of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in his office, Yalcinkaya, the mayor of Akcakale, said he was 100 percent behind the war but yearned for calm. “We want peace and brotherhood. We want to remove the terrorist groups and we want the Syrian refugees to go home.”