Turkish-led forces early yesterday began a street-by-street fight to capture Afrin, the most important Kurdish-held town in northern Syria, CNN-Turk television said, a crucial juncture in Turkey’s two-month-old campaign to expel US-backed Kurdish fighters from the border area.
Propelled by powerful allies, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has managed to reassert control over a large part of his country after seven years of war, but the direct intervention of Turkey, which backed anti-al-Assad groups through much of the conflict, suggests that the war is entering a dangerous new phase amid growing tensions among regional powerplayers including Russia, the US, Iran and Israel.
The US military has said that Turkey’s offensive is slowing down the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group elsewhere in Syria as some senior leaders of Kurdish forces have turned their attention from that battle toward Afrin.
Turkish authorities view the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which the US backs, as an extension of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants, who have sought autonomy for decades. They want to push them from their border.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday vowed that the army would not leave Afrin “before the job is done” and has signaled that he could broaden the offensive into northeastern Syria, ultimately targeting PKK bases in Iraq to quash Kurdish aspirations for self-rule.
Turkish commandos have been fighting PKK militants in northern Iraq since last week, state-run TRT television reported yesterday.
Afrin is thought to have been heavily fortified with concrete tunnels and explosives, and while many civilians have fled, tens of thousands could be caught in a prolonged battle.
“The capture of Afrin would inflict a serious blow on the Kurds’ statehood ambitions along Turkey’s borders in Syria,” said Ali Serdar Erdurmaz, an analyst at Hasan Kalyoncu University based in Gaziantep Province, bordering Syria.
He said a Turkish victory in Afrin could prompt Erdogan to push the US to ensure that Kurdish fighters withdraw from the town of Manbij, to east of the Euphrates River.
The Turkish army on Saturday denied allegations that it was behind an airstrike on a hospital in Afrin that killed at least 10 people, distributing drone footage that it said showed the hospital intact several hours after it was said to be attacked.
Turkey has said it is taking care to avoid civilian casualties and that Turkish troops have left a safe corridor from Afrin to allow civilians to leave the town if they want to.
As the original battles in Syria’s civil war draw to an end, with government forces pummeling the few remaining rebel-held areas and IS on the retreat, new fronts, such as Afrin, have opened up as local, regional and global powers try to stake out positions for the post-war period.
Armed groups loyal to al-Assad last month moved to join the Kurdish defense of Afrin, but stayed outside the town after Turkish forces fired artillery in a warning not to advance further, state-run Turkish media reported.
If victorious, Turkey has said it would not transfer control of Afrin to the al-Assad government.
The entire Afrin enclave, now largely under Turkish forces, should be run by its local population, Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told TRT television on Thursday.