Kurdish Fighters Mount Counterattack Using Network of Tunnels

The Syrian Democratic Forces have recaptured some territory from Turkish-backed forces.

A Syrian Democratic Forces mortar team targets the Islamic State near Deir Ezzor, Syria.
A Syrian Democratic Forces mortar team targets the Islamic State during a fire mission near Deir Ezzor, Syria, on Nov. 16, 2018. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Matthew Crane

As Turkey continues its onslaught of northeast Syria, the Syrian Kurds are using a sophisticated network of tunnels and other battlefield tactics to recapture some of the territory seized by Turkish-backed forces, Foreign Policy has learned. 

Four current and former U.S. officials who have worked closely with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) confirmed that the group built a defensive network of tunnels beneath key towns throughout northeast Syria as a contingency against a Turkish invasion. Now, with U.S. troops evacuating and no U.S. air support, the Kurdish fighters are successfully using the tunnels to defend the border towns.

The Kurdish fighters “are famous for developing innovative ways to fight a more advanced army,” said a senior U.S. administration official, adding that “the Turks have been surprised by their effectiveness.”

In the last 24 hours, the SDF has recaptured much of the border town of Ras al-Ain and pushed Turkish proxy forces from the strategic M4 highway, which runs through northern Syria and Iraq, according to a source with the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the SDF’s political arm. During the battle for Ras al-Ain, the SDF killed 103 fighters with the Free Syrian Army, a decentralized band of Syrian rebels with links to violent extremist groups, the source said. 

Gen. Mazloum Abdi, the SDF’s commander in chief, was seen in Ras al-Ain last night after it was recaptured, the SDC source said.

The Syrian observatory for Human Rights also reported that the SDF managed to recover the area after heavy fighting.

But as the violence continues, other key border areas are still mostly under Turkish control, including Tell Abyad and a town adjacent to Ras al-Ain, the SDC source said Tuesday morning after confirming with the team on the ground. 

Meanwhile, the rapid U.S. withdrawal has created an opening for Russia to move in. Once it became clear that the Americans were leaving, the SDF made a deal with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers to help protect their territory from the Turkish invasion. Assad’s army is now moving into position across northeast Syria, and Russian troops began patrolling in and around the strategic city of Manbij, which U.S. troops evacuated Monday. Manbij sits on the M4, directly west of a key bridge over the Euphrates River.

The developments come hours after U.S. President Donald Trump announced new sanctions on Turkey in response to the bloody onslaught. Trump said he spoke to both Mazloum and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday, and he got Erdogan’s commitment not to attack Kobani, another strategic border town controlled by the SDF. If Erdogan keeps his word, that is seen as the first step toward a cease-fire. 

(Update: As of Tuesday evening, Turkish troops are attacking Kobani and kidnapping civilians, the U.S. representative of the Syrian Democratic Council told Foreign Policy.)

In an effort to arbitrate between Ankara and the Kurds, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien will lead a delegation to Turkey. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Mark Esper will travel to Brussels next week, where he will press NATO allies to respond.

In the meantime, the SDF is using sophisticated battlefield tactics to put up a fight. The group began seriously working on the tunnels after Turkey seized Afrin in a bloody 2018 incursion, according to a U.S. Army officer who fought alongside the group in Syria. Some of the tunnels, which are located beneath the border towns and Manbij, another strategic outpost, lead backward to a secondary line of defense.

“The SDF found that they had no defense against Turkish air power, so they built tunnels along the border that they could fight out of,” the officer said, noting that U.S. troops conducted several rehearsals with the group on how to coordinate in the event of a Turkish invasion. U.S. forces also trained the SDF on how to build what is called a “defense in depth”—defense with multiple fallback lines—without committing fratricide, the officer said.

The tunnels are defensive in nature—contrary to Turkish claims, said another U.S. Army officer who fought in Syria with the SDF. 

The SDF is also skilled in employing improvised anti-tank mines and using inventive modes of transportation to move troops around the region, including school buses and pickup trucks, the officer said. 

The tunnels and other defenses were likely set up as part of Kurdish preparations for an eventual U.S. withdrawal, indicated by Trump’s December 2018 tweet announcing a U.S. withdrawal from Syria. Ambassador James Jeffrey made remarks around the same time that the United States does not “have permanent relationships with substate entities.” 

A former U.S. Army officer who also worked with the SDF in Syria also confirmed the group built tunnels as a contingency against a Turkish invasion but was not optimistic the group can hold territory for long against the Turks without “a conventional backer”—such as Russia or Assad’s army. The former officer noted that Turkish-backed forces are gaining ground much more quickly during the ongoing assault than they did during the campaign in Afrin, which was primarily carried out by the Turkish army. 

Still, regaining some control of the M4 is a major strategic victory for the SDF, the former officer said, because the group uses the highway to quickly shuttle troops and heavy equipment from safe areas to the battlefield.

“That road is their lifeline,” the former officer said.

This article was updated Oct. 15, 2019 to reflect continuing developments.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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