Turk­ish forces en­cir­cle Syria’s Afrin

Dozens of civil­ians evac­u­ated from East­ern Ghouta


BEIRUT: Turkey said Tues­day its army and al­lied rebels had sur­rounded the Kur­dish city of Afrin in north­ern Syria, rais­ing the prospect of an­other dev­as­tat­ing siege in the coun­try’s long con­flict.

With Syria’s war set to en­ter its eighth year this week, fight­ing con­tin­ues on sev­eral fronts, in­clud­ing around Afrin and in East­ern Ghouta near Da­m­as­cus, where dozens of civil­ians in­clud­ing peo­ple with med­i­cal con­di­tions were evac­u­ated on Tues­day.

France’s For­eign Min­is­ter Jean-Yves Le Drian on Tues­day warned Turkey that con­cerns over se­cu­rity “ab­so­lutely do not jus­tify” the scale of its of­fen­sive in Syria.

“Even if Turkey’s con­cerns over the bor­der are le­git­i­mate ... this ab­so­lutely does not jus­tify the ac­tion by Turk­ish troops deep in­side the Afrin area,” Le Drian told Par­lia­ment.

“In no cir­cum­stances does it jus­tify mil­i­tary oper­a­tions that put civil­ian pop­u­la­tions in dan­ger,” he added, brand­ing the sit­u­a­tion in Afrin “crit­i­cal.”

While at­ten­tion in re­cent weeks has fo­cused on a fe­ro­cious regime as­sault on op­po­si­tion-held Ghouta, in Syria’s north Turk­ish forces and al­lied op­po­si­tion fighters have been ad­vanc­ing in their of­fen­sive against the Kur­dish en­clave of Afrin.

In a state­ment Tues­day, the Turk­ish mil­i­tary said it had com­pletely en­cir­cled Afrin city, home to some 350,000 peo­ple and de­fended by a well-armed Syr­ian Kur­dish mili­tia, the Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units (YPG).

Birusk Hasakah, a YPG spokesman in­side Afrin, de­nied the city had been to­tally be­sieged but said the last route lead­ing out of it was be­ing shelled heav­ily.

“If they do en­cir­cle the city, we will be ready for a long fight. We will re­sist,” he told AFP.

The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said Turk­ish forces had moved to within fir­ing range of that last ac­cess route, which leads to a pair of regime­held towns — es­sen­tially en­cir­cling Afrin and 90 vil­lages to its west.

Seal­ing off Afrin city would be a key step in Turkey’s “Olive Branch” op­er­a­tion, launched on Jan. 20 and aimed at oust­ing the YPG, a vi­tal part­ner for a US-backed coali­tion against Daesh, but seen by Ankara as “ter­ror­ists.”

It re­mains un­clear what Turkey’s next move will be, but it may lay siege to Afrin while al­low­ing civil­ians to leave to avoid a high-ca­su­alty of­fen­sive.

The Bri­tain-based Ob­ser­va­tory said Ankara was seek­ing to push civil­ians into ei­ther op­po­si­tion-held ar­eas or Syr­ian regime ter­ri­tory to al­low for a “speedy mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion.”

Abu Jaa­far, a com­man­der in the proAnkara forces wag­ing Op­er­a­tion Olive Branch, said fighters were con­sid­er­ing leav­ing an “exit route” for civil­ians.

“We will al­low civil­ians ... to leave so they will not be hurt in case (Kur­dish) fighters hold out in the vil­lages, neigh­bor­hoods, or build­ings in­side Afrin,” he told AFP.

Hun­dreds of civil­ians were seen flee­ing Afrin on Mon­day, with cars and buses piled high with per­sonal be­long­ings head­ing to regime-held ar­eas fur­ther east.

The regime forces have mean­while been press­ing an as­sault to re­take East­ern Ghouta, the last ma­jor op­po­si­tion strong­hold near Da­m­as­cus.

Since Feb. 18, the regime forces have re­cap­tured more than 60 per­cent of the en­clave, whit­tling down rebel ter­ri­tory to three iso­lated pock­ets. The UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil passed a res­o­lu­tion last month call­ing for a 30-day truce to al­low for aid de­liv­er­ies and med­i­cal evac­u­a­tions from the en­clave — but the cease-fire de­mand went un­heeded.

The area has been un­der regime siege since 2013, mak­ing food scarce and hos­pi­tals too strapped to prop­erly treat sick and wounded peo­ple.

The regime’s as­sault to re­take East­ern Ghouta has killed hun­dreds of civil­ians. (Reuters)

The blast hit an army mess hall in the port city of Aden. (AFP)

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