First Published: 2018-03-13

Turkish forces 'surround' Afrin city
Turkish military's surrounding of Afrin city is key step in 'Olive Branch' operation aimed at ousting YPG militia from border areas.
Middle East Online

Hundreds of civilians fled the city towards areas under the control of Syrian pro-regime forces.

AFRIN - 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.

Syria's war enters its eighth year this week with clashes raging on several fronts, including Afrin and the besieged rebel pockets of Eastern Ghouta, which saw their first medical evacuations of civilians on Tuesday.

While attention in recent weeks has focused on a ferocious regime assault on Ghouta, Turkish forces and allied Syrian rebels have steadily advanced against the northern 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 Hasakeh, 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 said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Turkish forces were within firing range of that route, which leads to a pair of regime-held towns -- essentially encircling Afrin and 90 villages to its west.

- France warns Ankara -

Sealing off Afrin city would be major for Turkey's "Olive Branch" operation, launched on January 20 and aimed at ousting the YPG, a vital partner for a US-backed coalition against the Islamic State group, but seen by Ankara as "terrorists".

The assault has worried world powers, who fear it could detract from the fight against IS and was indiscriminately hurting civilians.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned Turkey on Tuesday that the scale of its offensive may be disproportional.

"If Turkey's concerns over the border are legitimate... this absolutely does not justify the action by Turkish troops deep inside the Afrin area," he told parliament.

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.

Abu Jaafar, a commander in the pro-Ankara forces waging Operation Olive Branch, said rebels 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, neighbourhoods, or buildings inside Afrin," he said.

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.

- 'Monstrous indifference' -

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have meanwhile been pressing an assault to retake Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel stronghold near Damascus.

Since February 18, Russian-backed 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 ceasefire demand went unheeded.

The area has been under government siege since 2013, leaving hospitals too strapped to treat people properly.

The UN has said more than 1,000 people in Ghouta were in desperate need of being taken out of the area for medical care.

On Tuesday, around 150 civilians, including people with medical conditions, were evacuated from Ghouta's largest town of Douma to regime-held territory.

Douma resident Umm Imad al-Ayyubi saidshe had been waiting for two years to be brought out of Douma for medical treatment.

"I am sick and had heart surgery. I'm coming to Damascus for a follow-up," said the 65-year-old woman.

Jaish al-Islam, which controls Douma, had earlier announced some "critical medical cases" would be evacuated.

More than 1,180 civilians have been killed since the Ghouta assault was launched.

On Tuesday, the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kate Gilmore voiced concern for some 125,000 children trapped in Ghouta.

"Is it not tantamount to a monstrous indifference to the suffering of children that Security Council resolutions for ceasefires are flouted?" Gilmore asked.

The United States presented a new draft resolution to the Security Council on a ceasefire to halt what France has called a "bloodbath" in Ghouta.

More than 350,000 people have died since Syria's conflict broke out in 2011. With Russia's help, Assad has retaken most of the territory he had lost in the early years of the uprising.

Syrian troops have used siege tactics in several areas, sealing off rebel-held territory and pressing a military operation before securing an evacuation deal.

The government has reportedly been pursing negotiations to secure local truces or potential evacuations from Ghouta's three rebel-held pockets.

Opposition forces have denied negotiating with the regime.


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