Battle for Afrin: Turkish Forces’ Advance Raises Fears of ‘New Ghouta’

Turkey’s military and its rebel allies have encircled the northern Syrian town of Afrin, the Turkish armed forces said on Tuesday, marking as substantial advance in Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish fighters across its southern border, Reuters reports.

The forces encircled Afrin town and also captured“areas of critical importance” in the region as of Monday, the Turkish military said in a statement. On Monday, a Turkish government spokesman said the armed forces had gained control of more than half the area and vowed to clear the Afrin town of militants. On Monday a government spokesman said it would soon clear the town of militants.

“We have cleared an area of 1102 kilometre square from terrorists in Afrin. We will soon reach the town centre and clear it as well,” spokesman Bekir Bozdag told reporters.

President Tayyip Erdogan last week said Turkish forces had besieged the Afrin town and were nearing its town center, but a YPG spokesman later denied this, saying the regions claimed to be under Turkish control were still battlegrounds.

According to The Washington Post, thousands of people had started to flee Afrin on Monday as the Turkish troops got closer to the town, heading toward nearby government-controlled areas. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday that the evacuations are expected to begin “within hours” under U.N. supervision.

Syrian TV showed some people arriving at the Wafideen crossing after they left the area with a woman saying that she has been waiting for more than a year to evacuate her sick child. The TV also showed an older man being carried while on a wheel chair before boarding an ambulance. Another woman was held as she could hardly walk.

Turkey says 3,393 “terrorists” have been “neutralised” – a term it says means they have surrendered, been captured or been killed – since the Afrin offensive began, BBC reports. More than 200 civilians and 370 YPG fighters have been killed so far, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). Some 340 Syrian rebels have also been killed, as well as 42 Turkish soldiers.

The Kurdish Red Crescent says more than 230 civilians, including 35 children, have also been killed and 688 civilians wounded. However, Turkish commanders deny targeting civilians or civilian infrastructure. Kurdish sources said all roads into Afrin were being targeted by shellfire, but denied that it was encircled.

Independent warns that Syrian Arab militiamen leading the Turkish attack on Afrin in northern Syria are threatening to massacre its Kurdish population unless they convert to the variant of Islam espoused by Isis and al-Qaeda. In the past such demands have preceded the mass killings of sectarian and ethnic minorities in both Syria and Iraq.

In one video a militia fighter flanked by others describes the Kurds as “infidels” and issues a stark warning, saying “by Allah, if you repent and come back to Allah, then know that you are our brothers. But if you refuse, then we see that your heads are ripe and that it’s time for us to pluck them.” Though the Kurds in Afrin are Sunni Muslims, Isis and al-Qaeda traditionally punish those who fail to subscribe to their beliefs as heretics deserving death.

“The video is 100 per cent authentic,” said Rami Abdulrahman, who heads the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which released it, in an interview with The Independent. He adds that he is very concerned about the fate of some Yazidi villages in Afrin captured by the advancing Turkish forces, saying he has seen videos taken by the militiamen themselves in one of which “an elderly Yazidi man is questioned by them, asking him how many times he prays a day.”

Abdulrahman, who is the leading human rights monitor in Syria with a network of informants throughout the country, says he is worried that international attention is entirely focused on the Syrian army assault on Eastern Ghouta and “nobody is talking about” the potential slaughter of the Kurds and other minorities in Afrin.

He says that the two situations are similar since “President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have taken 60 per cent of Ghouta and Erdogan’s forces have taken 60 per cent of Afrin.” He says that as many as one million Kurds may be threatened and adds that it is becoming extremely difficult for them to escape from Afrin because Syrian government checkpoints on the only road leading south to Aleppo “are demanding bribes of up to $4,000 per family to let people through.”

According to the Deutche Welle, with Turkish troops and opposition fighters moving ever closer, thousands of Afrin residents have tried to escape the advancing forces by road, while others have been pushed into overcrowded shelters.

Ebrahim Ebrahim, a Europe-based spokesman for the largest Kurdish group in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), said those fleeing were heading toward government-controlled areas, afraid that Turkish troops and Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters might commit atrocities against the Kurds and minority Christians, Alawites and Yazidis in the town.

Life in Afrin is becoming increasingly difficult, with Turkish troops destroying water and power stations that supply the town. Convoys of activists were reportedly leaving for Afrin from the cities of Cizre in southern Turkey and Kobani in northern Syria in an effort to protect the city by volunteering to put themselves between rebel fighters and the Turks and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

“Water has been cut from Afrin for a week now. Everyone is very scared of what’s coming now that the Turkish occupying forces are getting closer to the town’s center,” said Serbest Hassan, a resident, told the Associated Press, adding that 800,000 civilians were facing a humanitarian “catastrophe” amid food shortages and Turkish airstrikes.

Pro-Kurdish groups held protests in Britain, Germany and other European nations on Sunday, calling on the international community to act, The Sydney Morning Herald says. Jamie Janson, a volunteer fighting with the YPG in Afrin, said: “If the world stands by and continues to do nothing, the devastation you are seeing in Eastern Ghouta today will be Afrin city tomorrow. For seven weeks now, Afrin has been bombed and shelled without mercy. People don’t even wake up when windows rattle from early-morning bomb blasts anymore.”

The latest moves will aggravate tensions between Turkey and the US, which has urged Ankara to halt its offensive against its Kurdish partner forces, their most reliable ally in the fight against Islamic State. A Western diplomat said Turkey had told its NATO allies that they would stop before the city, planning only to secure the border.
“We thought the Afrin offensive was more about Turkey trying to get the US’s attention rather that any serious attempt to take territory in Syria,” he said.

Turkey launched its operation, dubbed“Olive Branch”, in northern Syria nearly two months ago to sweep the Syrian Kurdish YPG from the Turkish border, U.S. News reminds. Turkey sees the YPG as a terrorist group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Since the start of its offensive, Turkey has also threatened to push its military operations to Manbij, further east, to sweep Syrian Kurdish fighters from the length of its borders. Turkey’s repeated threats to push to Manbij have caused complications with NATO ally the United States, which has its troops deployed in the area and is backing the YPG in the fight against Islamic State, a move that has infuriated Ankara.