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)