Turkey and allied fighters overrun on Monday the city of Afrin, Syria’s Kurdish-held town, after a deadly two-month assault that dealt Kurds a major blow and could reshape the region.
The most significant control of territory change in Syria this year coincided with the regime’s grinding down of Eastern Ghouta, a six-year-old rebel bastion near Damascus. President Bashar al-Assad visited reconquered areas there Sunday to hail his troops’ advances, which led tens of thousands of civilians to flee to government areas after years of siege.
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) could do little when Syrian Arab fighters backed by NATO’s second-largest army thrust into Afrin, nearly two months into a massive assault on the region.
The fighters, mostly former anti-Assad rebels, celebrated their victory by destroying the statue of Kurdish hero Kawa and looting shops and other property. The pillaging drew widespread condemnation, including from Syrian opposition groups supporting the Turkish intervention.
“The looting and stealing of private and public property is a crime,” said Mohamed Alloush, a key figure in the Jaish al-Islam rebel group. “All those who took part in this decadence need to have their hands slapped hard.”
Sweeping for mines
An AFP reporter said looting was still taking place on Monday, with fighters joking at checkpoints about their spoils. The Britain-based Syria Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, which relies on an extensive network of sources across Syria, also said pillaging was still underway.
The mosaic of factions hired by Turkey from Idlib province and elsewhere to wage the offensive were spray-painting their groups’ names on Afrin shop fronts and walls.
They also picked through debris for bombs and unexploded ordnance after explosions killed at least 13 of them on Sunday. The command of the operation Ankara launched on January 20 appeared to be rotating some fighters out in order to bring a police holding force.
Turkey, which has threatened to push deeper into Syria, said its operation was aimed at securing the north of the country to allow the three million Syrian refugees on its soil to return.
Ankara was also worried that the Kurds, who control some 30 percent of Syrian territory, would consolidate a statelet stretching all along the border.
Turkey is Not Staying in Afrin
On Monday, Turkey insisted that pro-Ankara forces did not plan to remain in Afrin as occupiers.
Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag, the government’s top spokesman, said there was no plan to remain in the city, even as officials warned the offensive could expand eastwards.
“We are not staying permanently in Afrin. We are not an occupier at all,” Bozdag told reporters in televised comments in Istanbul.
Turkey sees YPG as a Syrian offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose insurgency has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 1984.
The YPG is seen by the United States as a key player in the fight against Islamic State. But Turkey brands it a terrorist group. “The objective of our operation is to cleanse the region of terror, to restore peace, trust and stability in a strong way, and to return the region to its rightful owners,” Bozdag said.
The capture of the city is seen a major step forward for Turkey as it seeks to bolster its control along the border in northern Syria.
Erdogan has repeatedly said that after taking Afrin, Turkey’s offensive would expand to key border towns controlled by the YPG right up to the Iraqi frontier. These would include Manbij, the next main YPG-held town east of Afrin — a particular flashpoint as there is a U.S. military presence there.
Erdogan has also threatened to then move on to Kobane — of symbolic importance as it was the epicenter of a struggle with Islamic State militants — and then Qamishli which is seen as the main town of the YPG-controlled region.
On Monday, President Erdogan said Turkish-backed fighters are sweeping Afrin for landmines and making the area safe for civilians. He bragged about Turkey’s success in capturing Afrin, describing it as the “most important part of the Olive Branch Operation” and vowed to continue the offensive until the entire “terror corridor is cleared.”
Erdogan acknowledged that Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations were designed to disrupt the Kurdish strip from the Iraqi border to the Mediterranean, calling it a “terror corridor.”
Indicating there was no plan for the Turkish army to call off offensive, Erdogan described the taking of Afrin as merely a “comma” and also warned Turkey could launch a surprise attack on Kurdish rebel strongholds in Iraq.
Erdogan insisted that Turkey “has no intention of being occupiers” in Syria and only wanted to remove the threat posed by the “terrorists.”
He said the Turkish campaign in Syria, conducted in tandem with allied Syrian forces, could now extend up to Qamishli, the easternmost Syrian town held by the YPG before the Iraqi border.
“Now we will continue this process until we entirely eliminate this corridor, including in Manbij, Ayn al-Arab, Tel-Abyad, Ras al-Ayn and Qamishli,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.
Manbij, the next main YPG-held town east of Afrin is a particular flashpoint as there is a U.S. military presence there, raising the risk of confrontation between the NATO allies.
Ayn al-Arab is the border town known as Kobane in Kurdish, of symbolic importance as it was the epicenter of a struggle with Islamic State.
He also evoked a possible operation against PKK camps in Iraq’s Sinjar region, saying this could come any time.
Erdogan said he had told the Iraqi authorities in Baghdad to deal with PKK camps there, warning Sinjar risked becoming one of the group’s strongholds, like the Qandil mountain area.
Washington ‘Deeply Concerned’
In Washington, a Pentagon spokesman said during a press briefing on Monday that the U.S. is in close contact with its NATO ally Turkey and that the U.S. has a “results-oriented mechanism” for talks with Ankara.
Reminding that the U.S. has forces in Manbij, spokesman Col. Rob Manning declined to comment on how Washington might react if the town comes under attack. There was no indication, according to the spokesman, if U.S. forces stationed in Manbij may leave the town before a possible Turkish assault.
Col. Manning maintained the official U.S. line by warning that expanding Turkish offensive in northern Syria may “take the focus away” from the fight against the Islamic State, describing it as “not helpful.”
“What’s going on right now is taking away our ability to defeat a very serious threat in Syria and that’s ISIS,” Col. Manning said.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Monday that it appears the majority of the population of the city, which is predominantly Kurdish, evacuated under threat of attack from Turkish military forces and Turkish-backed opposition forces.
“We are also concerned over reports of looting inside the city of Afrin. We have repeatedly expressed our serious concern to Turkish officials regarding the situation in Afrin,” she said.
We are deeply concerned by UN evacuation reports of up to 250,000 Kurds from #Afrin #Syria. We call on all relevant actors incl. #Turkey, #Russia & the #Assad regime to facilitate access & support humanitarian assistance. https://t.co/TQWqeeRwEv pic.twitter.com/j7h36lF4Zz
— Heather Nauert (@statedeptspox) March 19, 2018
Nauert said the offensive had worsened the “humanitarian situation in the area, with United Nations agencies reporting a displaced population in or from Afrin district in the hundreds of thousands.”
But she made it clear that Washington is not taking sides west of the Euphrates, despite Erdogan having declared that his forces will now take the battle to more Kurdish-held districts.
“The United States does not operate in the area of northwest Syria where Afrin is located,” Nauert said. “We remain committed to our NATO ally Turkey, to include their legitimate security concerns.
“We also remain committed to the ISIS campaign and our Syrian Democratic Forces partners in eastern Syria,” she said.
But the U.S. spokeswoman also warned that the fighting has distracted from the battle against the Islamic State, which she said had begun “reconstituting in some areas.”
“This is a serious and growing concern,” she added.
Syria Condemns Turkey’s ‘Invasion’ of Afrin
Syria’s foreign ministry on Monday slammed Turkey’s takeover of Afrin, demanding it “immediately” pull its forces from the northwestern city.
The foreign ministry in Damascus sent two letters on Monday to the United Nations, protesting the capture as “illegitimate.”
“Syria condemns the Turkish occupation of Afrin and the crimes it is committing there, and demands the invading forces immediately withdraw from the Syrian territory they occupied,” the ministry said in its letters, according to state news agency SANA.
“Turkey’s behavior and attacks do not only threaten citizens and the unity of Syria’s land and people — they also prolong the war on Syria,” it added.
Damascus has repeatedly criticised Turkey for its military operations on Syrian soil, accusing it of supporting “terrorist” groups. Pro-government militiamen even joined the fight to defend Afrin, dispatched from adjacent regime-held territory in Aleppo province. Turkey has killed dozens of them.
‘Ethnic Cleansing in Afrin, World is Watching’
A top Kurdish envoy on Monday accused the international community of being “spectators” as Turkish-led troops commit war crimes in Syria.
Khaled Issa, who represents the Kurdish rebel authority in France, accused foreign powers of abandoning the Kurds who have been allies on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State.
“There’s a moral responsibility for the international community in the face of an unjustified and illegal aggression,” Issa told AFP, referring to the Turkish-led offensive on Afrin.
“What is happening in Afrin is ethnic cleansing and the great powers are spectators,” added Issa, who represents the “Rojava self-ruled Democratic Administration” which runs areas under Kurdish control in northern Syria.
“We are frustrated to see that the same fighters that were courageously combatting Daesh (Islamic State) have been left to the mercy of the Turkish army allied with jihadists, abandoned under the bombs of Ankara,” Issa said.
Last week, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian condemned Turkey’s intervention in Syria in the strongest terms, saying Ankara’s security concerns “absolutely do not justify” the scale of its offensive.
Former French president Francois Hollande, who left office last May, has also denounced the Turkish operation and called for greater solidarity to be shown towards the Kurds.
“If I supported the Kurds as part of the coalition (of U.S.-led foreign powers active in Syria), it wasn’t to leave them in the situation they find themselves in now,” he told Le Monde in an interview last week.
1,500 Kurdish fighters killed
Nicholas Heras, a security fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said taking Afrin was a success for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who shrugged off international concern to press on with the operation.
“Afrin is one of the most strategic areas of northwest Syria. It is a piece of real estate that anchors Turkey’s presence for many years to come,” Heras told AFP.
Bitterness ran high among the Kurds, who feel poorly rewarded for the sacrifices made when they were the ground force of the U.S.-led coalition’s war against the Islamic State.
The Observatory said that more than 1,500 Kurdish fighters had been killed since the start of the offensive, most of them in air strikes and artillery fire. The YPG has vowed to fight back but their chances look slim and tens of thousands of Afrin residents who fled in recent days now find themselves in limbo.
Red Cross: Access to Civilians Necessary
The head of the international Red Cross called on Monday for access to civilians in Afrin, warning Turkish aid workers lacked credibility after Ankara-led forces took the city.
Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, stressed the need to help those remaining in the city, warning that accessing Afrin had already been difficult before the latest developments.
“Now with the combat operation we have a big number of people displaced,” he told journalists in Geneva after a two-week trip to the Middle East, including war-ravaged Syria.
“We will have to find the best way possible to reach this population over the next couple of days and weeks,” he said, adding: “I hope this is possible.”
While advocating for access, Maurer acknowledged that the national Turkish Red Crescent society, which would be best placed to go in, would have difficulty working with Kurdish civilians following the Turkish-led military operations.
“The credibility of a Turkish Red Crescent working in Afrin with the Kurdish population is close to zero,” he said, stressing the need for the ICRC itself to go into the city. Maurer said any humanitarian operation to Afrin would be difficult.
“This is a very fluid situation,” he said, pointing out that “we don’t know who stayed in Afrin.”
“This will be a very complex and complicated situation for those who remain in Afrin and it will be difficult for those who are displaced and who at the present moment are not yet in a very stable situation where we can deliver humanitarian assistance,” he said.
Maurer also spoke of the situation in Syria’s other main flashpoint at the moment, the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.
He stressed the important role played by Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main ally, in ensuring evacuations from the besieged enclave.
“There is no question that the Russians play a very important role in bringing the belligerents on both sides of the frontline together and to a create safe space and environment in which safe evacuations can take place,” he said.
Syria’s conflict, which started seven years ago this month when Assad’s forces cracked down on peaceful protests demanding regime change, has killed at least 350,000 people and displaced more than half of the pre-war population of 20 million.
As his main backer, Russian President Vladimir Putin secured a fourth term, Assad projected confidence Sunday in videos released by his office that showed him driving himself to recaptured areas of Ghouta.
British Woman Killed in Afrin
Meanwhile, a British woman fighting alongside Kurdish forces in Afrin has been killed in the Turkish-led offensive, a spokeswoman for the forces said on Monday.
Anna Campbell was killed last week in the Afrin enclave, said Nisrin Abdallah, a spokeswoman for the YPG.
“She died on March 15, 2018 in Turkish shelling” during fighting for Afrin city, Abdallah told AFP.
“We learned of her death yesterday and communicated with her parents,” she said, confirming that Campbell was from Lewes in East Sussex. Abdallah said Campbell joined the YPG in May 2017 but had not been deployed to the front line until this month.
“After the attack on Afrin, she insisted on being sent there,” Abdallah said. Hundreds of foreign fighters have fought alongside the YPG in Syria, mostly backing the Kurdish militia in its battle against the Islamic State. At least two were killed last month in the Afrin assault.
French national Olivier Francois Jean Le Clainche, 41, and Spanish national Samuel Prada Leon, 25, were killed elsewhere in the Afrin enclave in February.
Sporting a pair of sunglasses, he spoke to the camera from the wheel of his Honda as he drove past scenes of devastation. The goals of the Islamist and jihadist groups in Ghouta “was to choke Damascus by cutting off roads and communications between cities,” he said.
“Oxygen and blood are flowing again in the country’s main arteries.”
On February 18, Syria and its Russian ally launched a blistering aerial campaign against Eastern Ghouta, a semi-rural area within mortar range of central Damascus that had escaped regime control since 2012.
The subsequent ground offensive, led by Syrian troops and allied militia splintered the enclave into three pockets. The regime has pursued the military option against two of them, causing a mass civilian exodus, but allowed the area around the main town of Douma some level of respite.
Several aid convoys organized by the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross were allowed into Douma this month, while a limited number of critical patients were granted medical evacuations.
The regime did not completely release the pressure on Douma however, the latest strikes killing at least 13 people overnight, the Observatory said.
Anna Varfolomeeva contributed to the report from Washington D.C.