Turkish military forces and Free Syria Army (FSA) militia swept into the northwestern Syrian town of Afrin on Sunday, taking control of the town center after Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces pulled out, autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said.
“In order to avoid a big humanitarian disaster, we have decided for the evacuation of civilians from the city,” said the Kurdish local administration of Afrin on Sunday, after the Turkish military claimed to have taken control of most of the city.
According to a report by pro-Kurdish Fırat news agency (ANF), the Democratic Autonomous Administration of Afrin Canton held a press conference and vowed to continue the resistance in Afrin “until every inch is liberated,” noting that they have forces deployed everywhere in Afrin and threatening Turkey that those forces will “inflict a blow to Turkish and FSA forces in their own base.”
According to a report by Reuters, a spokesman for the FSA militia said they entered Afrin before dawn from three fronts, meeting no resistance. But a war monitor said clashes continued in parts of Afrin, the main town of the Afrin region, which has been under Kurdish control for years.
The fighting in a once stable pocket of northwest Syria has opened a new front in the country’s multi-sided civil war, highlighting the ever greater role of foreign powers in the seven-year-old conflict.
“YPG chose tactically to withdraw from the city centre, the withdrawal continued till early Sunday morning, and Turkish Armed Forces and FSA entered the centre afterwards,” told an anonymous local source to BBC Turkish.
Salih Muslim, the former co-chair of the Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) also posted a tweet on Sunday morning, reading “Withdrawal from one battle doesn’t mean loose of war and give up the struggle.”
“Our forces are present all over Afrin’s geography. These forces will strike the positions of the Turkish enemy and its mercenaries at every opportunity,” Othman Sheikh Issa, co-chair of the Afrin executive council, said in a televised statement. “Our forces all over Afrin will become a constant nightmare for them.”
Issa claimed Kurdish militants had shown “unparalleled steadfastness and resistance” in the fight, but that Kurdish authorities had decided to evacuate civilians from Afrin “to avoid a worse humanitarian catastrophe.”
Ankara, which says Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters are an extension of a militant group waging an insurgency inside Turkey, launched its campaign eight weeks ago and says it will extend the offensive to other Kurdish regions where US forces are stationed alongside the YPG, an ally against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
“Afrin city center was under control as of 8:30 this morning,” Erdoğan told a rally marking the 103rd anniversary of the World War I Gallipoli campaign. Turkish and FSA flags had been raised in Afrin, he said.
“Most of the terrorists have already fled with their tails between their legs. Our special forces and members of the FSA are clearing the remains and the traps they left behind,” Erdoğan said. “In the center of Afrin, symbols of trust and stability are waving instead of the rags of terrorists.”
However, Hadia Yousef, a Syrian Kurdish official, denied that YPG militants had fled the town, saying they evacuated civilians due to “massacres” committed by Syrian rebels. Yousef told The Associated Press that clashes were still ongoing in the town.
“We will have to take necessary steps to rebuild Afrin, raise infrastructure and wipe out traces of terrorists,” Erdoğan said, adding that “Turkish, Free Syrian Army’s flags are hoisted in Afrin town center.”
“We are not there to occupy but to wipe out terror groups and to achieve peace in Afrin,” Erdoğan said.
The Turkish General Staff in a written statement said a search for mines and improvised explosive devices was in progress in the town. According to a report by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, Turkish troops entered the town center at around 5 a.m. local time from the east, west and north, during which time some mines placed by terrorists at entry points of the district exploded as FSA militants advanced into the town center.
Turkey’s armed forces said in a statement that troops were combing the streets for mines and improvised explosive devices.
The army posted a video on Twitter captioned “The first pictures from Afrin” it said was filmed in the center of Afrin showing a tank stationed under a balcony draped in the Turkish flag, with an FSA banner being waved.
“This is a gift for those who were martyred on March 18,” said a Turkish soldier as he waved the national flag in the video. The 103rd anniversary of March 18, 1915 is marked as a national day in Turkey, known as “Çanakkale Victory and Martyrs Day.”
Without encountering any kind of resistance, they took complete control of the town center. The FSA, after taking over the biggest neighborhoods of Ashrafieh, Jamiliyah and Mahmudiyah in the town center’s north, advanced to the old bus stop area, according to correspondents.
FSA spokesman Mohammad al-Hamadeen said the fighters entered the town from the north, east and west. “Maybe it will be cleared by the end of the day — it’s empty of [YPG] fighters, they cleared out.”
Turkish troops and FSA militants on Sunday also seized a 12-room underground ammunition depot in Afrin belonging to the YPG. The 150-meter depot was found in the village of Cuvek, northwest of Afrin. Instead of bombing the depot, Turkish-backed forces entered and took control of it.
Moreover, Turkish forces and FSA militants damaged and tore down a statue linked to Kurdish culture in the center of Afrin on Sunday, a statement on a WhatApp group run by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said, citing the Afrin media center.
The statue was of the blacksmith Kawa, a central figure in a Kurdish legend about the new year’s celebration of Nevroz. The statement said this was the “first blatant violation of Kurdish people’s culture and history since the takeover of Afrin.”
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Right said Turkish and FSA fighters controlled around half of the town but that fighting continued on Sunday morning in some areas. Despite an exodus of more than 150,000 people in recent days, thousands of civilians remained in Afrin, it said.
The observatory said the bombardment by Turkish forces and their drones and warplanes targeted several areas in Afrin city and its outskirts. According to the observatory, the number of civilian victims has risen to 289, including 43 children, who were killed in Turkish aerial, artillery and missile shelling, and in executions of several people in the Afrin area since January 20.
According to observatory, which uses a nationwide network of on-the-ground sources to monitor the conflict, more than 1,500 Kurdish militants have been killed since the Turkish military launched its offensive on January 20.
However, according to the Turkish army a total of 3,569 militants have been “neutralized” in Afrin since the start of Operation Olive Branch. Turkish authorities often use the word “neutralized” in their statements to imply the militants in question either surrendered or were killed or captured.
The Turkish military also announced on Sunday that during its 58-day campaign, 46 Turkish soldiers were killed and 225 wounded in the clashes.