The Turkish army is continuing its efforts to dig a military trench separating the opposition-held territory in the rural northwestern segment of the Aleppo governorate from territories under the control of the Syrian regime and Syrian Democratic Force (SDF). Though the digging began in early April in the countryside outside Jarablus, it halted when diggers reached the town of Tadef in May, where they confronted local protests against the trench’s potential housing, land, and property rights violations.
The trench is aimed at preventing the smuggling of goods between the different areas of control and tightening security in opposition territory, a commander of a Turkish-backed opposition faction told a local correspondent for The Syria Report. The opposition considers the trench to be a necessary fortification to strengthen its line of defense and better define the boundaries of its territory of control. This is all meant to reportedly stabilise the region, where Turkey plans to resettle more than one million Syrian refugees.
Before the trench diggers reached Tadef, residents organised protests against the project. Tadef is geographically split between opposition and regime control, and constructing a section of the planned trench through the town would only solidify the division. Residents have demanded that opposition forces and the Turkish army stop digging the trench, and instead resume military operations to seize the entirety of the town.
Opposition factions, supported by the Turkish army, captured the majority of Tadef in 2017 as part of Operation Euphrates Shield. The operation also expelled the Islamic State from the area. At the same time, the regime’s 25th Special Mission Forces Division, known more commonly as the Tiger Forces, captured the remaining part of Tadef with Russian military support. Since then, the town has remained split between the two sides.
Regime forces control around one third of Tadef, including buildings and agricultural land. This section of the town is empty of residents, though home to a slew of regime military sites and weapons depots. Most former residents of this part of the town were displaced to areas of opposition control in the northern countryside of the Aleppo governorate. Regime forces have forbidden residents from returning to the part of town under their control, deeming the area a closed military zone. Destruction is widespread in this zone due to bombardment, the demolition of homes, and the looting of iron rebar. Regime forces have also destroyed a number of homes on the pretext that they were owned by armed opposition members. Finally, many of the olive groves in this part of Tadef have faced excessive logging, with their wood destined for markets in the city of Aleppo.
Meanwhile, more than 2,000 families currently live in the section of Tadef under opposition control. Damage is also severe in this part of the town, also due to battles and bombardment. Homes located close to the line of contact with regime forces were converted into military points; opposition forces have prohibited expelled homeowners from returning.
On May 15, residents of Tadef began organising a popular demonstration and set up a protest tent to impede the digging of the trench, which by then had reached the town’s outskirts. Protesters met with opposition and Turkish officials, demanding that the digging cease. Digging halted temporarily due to the popular pressure, albeit without any official promises to reroute the trench. Residents demanded that the trench be dug alongside the southern outskirts of the town, so that the entirety of the town would be considered within opposition territory and displaced people could return home.
According to a protest organiser in Tadef who spoke with The Syria Report, the trench is around five metres deep and more than five metres wide. A 10-metre earthen berm is also in the works. The trench is reportedly being built within the opposition-held part of Tadef, a full kilometre from the line of contact with regime forces, meaning that a large portion of the town’s buildings and agricultural land will be lost or demolished. Half of the town’s residents are at risk of losing their properties and becoming displaced due to the trench, the protest organiser claimed. He added that, until now, neither the opposition nor the Turkish army have promised compensation for the potential losses should construction of the trench continue through the town.