A family walks past a tank belonging to the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army rebels after the capture of Khaldieh village in the east of Syria's Afrin region on March 10, 2018. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters
Turkish forces and allied Syrian rebels reached the outskirts of Afrin in north-west Syria on Saturday, raising concerns for tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the Kurdish-held town, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitoring group said on Saturday.
Turkey and allied Syrian rebel groups it supports are advancing on the town from the east under intense bombardment, the Britain-based Observatory said.
Ankara launched its offensive in the Afrin region on its border in January, aiming to drive out the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as an extension of the PKK group that has fought a three-decade insurgency inside Turkey.
During the campaign it has managed to gain control over all the Afrin region’s border areas with Turkey, including several small towns and a large number of villages.
Despite being rivals with the Syrian government and having clashed with the Syrian army at times in the war, the YPG has asked Damascus to help it repel the Turkish assault.
Last month, pro-Syrian government militias entered Afrin region to back up the YPG, but their deployment did not deter Turkey despite the possibility of a wider escalation in the war, and it continued its campaign.
Afrin is separated from a much larger area held by Syrian Kurdish forces further east along the border with Turkey, including large swathes of land captured from Islamic State with support from the United States.
On Friday, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said the Turkish army would soon enter Afrin. He also vowed to sweep Kurdish fighters from the length of the border.
Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Peter Graff
World must help Afrin civilians in ‘catastrophic’ situation
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – A conflict monitor has urged the United Nations and global human rights organizations to take urgent action to help hundreds of thousands of civilians in Afrin as the humanitarian situation in the Kurdish canton under Turkish bombardment becomes “catastrophic.”
The “humanitarian situation is getting catastrophic in Afrin area, as a result of increased shelling and escalation of ground attack,” the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated on Friday.
Thousands of civilians are sleeping in the open in Afrin city and the surrounding farmlands and villages, the Observatory noted.
Turkey, along with Syrian rebel militia groups, began its operation against the Kurdish enclave on January 20, launching attacks on multiple fronts along Afrin’s borders.
Civilians in the border areas moved towards central Afrin canton.
A month into its campaign, Turkish forces took the last border area and were then in control of 250 kilometres of the Turkey-Syria border running from Jarablus on the western bank of the Euphrates River to the Atmah area in Idlib.
Turkey then turned its focus to the urban areas. It is now in control of five towns, Bulbul, Rajo, Jandaris, Shera, and Sheikh Hadid, and brought in police special forces to assist in the urban fighting and to hold the towns after military operations were complete. Turkey controls some 34 percent of the canton, according to Observatory figures.
On Friday, Turkey took control of the Maydanki dam 12 kilometres north of Afrin city. The dam is the primary water source for Afrin.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Friday afternoon that his forces were ready to enter Afrin city at any moment.
The Observatory has noted a movement of more than 12,000 civilians from central Afrin, headed to the southeast and the towns of Nubl and al-Zahra, north of Aleppo and under Damascus control.
Concerned about the humanitarian conditions and escalation of Turkish shelling, the Observatory called on the UN High Commission for Human Rights and international rights organizations to “move for the relief of hundreds of thousands of citizens who are suffering…”
According to UN figures at the start of the conflict, 323,000 people are living in Afrin and nearby areas under Kurdish control. Of them, 192,000 are in need of humanitarian aid and 125,000 are IDPs displaced from other parts of Syria.
At least 204 civilians have been killed as of Friday, according to the Observatory. Local health officials put the civilian death toll higher. Turkey has denied harming civilians in its offensive.
The Observatory has previously called for a humanitarian corridor to be opened to allow civilians to cross into regime-controlled territory, citing concern about a possible siege on Afrin.
At least one international aid convoy has reached the beleaguered canton in Syria’s northwestern corner. A 29-truck convoy of food, medical supplies, and basic necessities from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Syria and the Syrian Red Crescent arrived in Afrin on March 1.
Turkey has framed its operation as counter-terrorism, alleging that the Kurdish groups in northern Syria, the armed YPG and YPJ and the ruling political party PYD, are branches of the PKK, a named terror groups.
The Kurdish groups follow the doctrine of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan, but maintain they are distinct organizations.
Kurds accuse Turkey of making a land grab and wanting to wipe out the Kurdish population in Afrin.