Friday 20 July 2018

Kurds vow revenge after Turkey takes key town

Civilians run for cover from explosions as the Turkish army arrives. Photo: AFP/Getty
Civilians run for cover from explosions as the Turkish army arrives. Photo: AFP/Getty

Sara Elizabeth Williams

Turkey wrested control of the Kurdish-majority Syrian city of Afrin yesterday after two months of heavy fighting and the displacement of an estimated 200,000 people.

Syrian rebel fighters, backed by Ankara, raised Turkish and Syrian-rebel flags in the centre of Afrin after Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters moved in yesterday morning after the retreat of Kurdish militias.

Syrian Kurdish officials claimed yesterday that their near-complete ousting from Afrin marked not a defeat but "a new phase" of guerrilla warfare. "Our troops will turn into a continuous nightmare for them," said Othman Sheikh Issa, an official from Afrin.

It marked a win for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, who said in a speech that "many of the terrorists had turned tail and run away already".

It marked something of a defeat for Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president, after government-allied Shia forces joined the Kurds in battle in late February.

The fight for Afrin was part of what Turkey code-named Operation Olive Branch, a deadly ground-and-air offensive to dislodge Kurdish YPG and YPJ militias from the Turkish border.

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army members topple a Kurdish statue in the centre of Afrin. Photo: Reuters
Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army members topple a Kurdish statue in the centre of Afrin. Photo: Reuters

Turkey considers the groups to be related to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has waged a bloody, decades-long insurgency inside Turkey. Since the offensive's launch in January, some 1,500 Kurdish fighters have been killed, observers said yesterday.

According to figures released by the Turkish army, 46 Turkish soldiers have been killed since the start of the Afrin offensive. Scores of civilians were also killed, particularly in recent days as Turkish warplanes homed in on Afrin's centre. On Saturday, Turkey's military denied responsibility for a strike on a hospital that killed 16 people, including two pregnant women.

Monitors and YPG sources claimed that some "pockets of resistance" remained inside the city, but with Syrian rebel fighters combing the streets since yesterday morning, it was unclear how long resistance might last.

Operation Olive Branch has brought Mr Erdogan into an awkward position, turning his country's firepower on militias backed by the US, his Nato ally.

Many of the FSA militias fighting alongside Turkish forces had even once received backing from the US.

As Mr Erdogan claimed victory in Afrin, Mr Assad signalled the same with a high-profile visit to Eastern Ghouta, where his own forces are operating with Russian backing to obliterate resistance to his rule.

A blistering aerial campaign and fierce ground fighting has made for a deeply asymmetrical battle between Russian, Syrian and Iran-backed fighters and vastly outgunned anti-Assad militias who have claimed this stretch since 2012.

Irish Independent

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