Photographer: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images
Turkey Captures Syrian Town of Afrin From KurdsBy
Turkey-led forces have raised flags in center of Afrin
Capture of northern Syrian town hampers Kurdish autonomy bid
Turkish-led forces captured the northern Syrian town of Afrin on Sunday, driving out Kurdish fighters and declaring control two months after starting an offensive to expel U.S.-backed Kurdish forces from the border area.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech the flags of Turkey and its Free Syrian Army allies had been raised in the center of Afrin as the “terrorists have fled”. "As of 0830 this morning, the Free Syrian Army, with the support of the Turkish Armed Forces, have gained total control over Afrin town center,” Erdogan said on Twitter.
The capture of Afrin could propel Erdogan to expand his campaign to drive the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia from the border and quash aspirations of Kurdish self-rule. Turkish authorities see the YPG as an extension of PKK militants who have been battling for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for decades. Turkish commandos have also been fighting PKK militants in northern Iraq since last week, state-run TRT television reported Sunday.
Othman Sheikh Issa, a Kurdish official from Afrin, said in a statement the fight against Turkish-led forces would not stop but would take a different form. “The resistance will continue until every part of Afrin has been liberated and it’s people return home,” Issa said.
There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government.
Turkey has already said it had no intention of handing over Afrin to the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and that the area would be ruled by locals.
Ali Serdar Erdurmaz, an analyst with Hasan Kalyoncu University based in Gaziantep province near the Syrian border, said the victory would embolden Erdogan, who has urged the U.S. to ensure the YPG also withdraws from the town of Manbij, further east.
If that happens, Turkey would control a large chunk of northern Syria from the Euphrates River to the Mediterranean coast, in effect blocking the formation of a Kurdish statelet in the area, Erdurmaz said. “The capture of Afrin ensures that Turkey will have a say in its future,” he said.
Propelled by powerful allies, Assad has managed to reassert control over a large part of his country after seven years of war. But the Turkish offensive has raised the stakes in Syria, where growing tensions among outside power-players including Russia, the U.S., Iran and Israel have increased the risks of escalation.
As the original battles in Syria’s civil war draw to an end, with government forces pummeling the few remaining rebel-held areas and Islamic State on the retreat, new fronts have opened up as local, regional and global powers try to stake out positions for the post-war period.
The U.S. military has said Turkey’s offensive was slowing down the fight against Islamic State elsewhere in Syria as some senior leaders of Kurdish forces have now turned their attention away from that battle.
Armed groups loyal to 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.
Turkey says it killed or wounded more than 3,500 YPG militants in the battle for the town. Turkish troops have suffered more than 40 losses and pro-Turkish Syrian rebels have lost more than 200 fighters in the offensive.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a war monitor, said Turkish-led forces had begun looting and ransacking Afrin soon after Kurdish fighters fled. It said at least 289 civilians, including 43 children had been killed in the offensive that began on January 20 and hundreds more wounded.
After seizing the town, Turkish troops swept Afrin for booby-traps and explosives, believed to have been planted by fleeing Kurdish fighters, CNN-Turk television said Sunday. Civilians welcomed the Free Syrian Army as they entered Afrin. Television footage in Turkey showed residents showering them with rice from balconies while some rebels kissed the ground and fired into the air in celebration.
— With assistance by Lin Noueihed, Ugur Yilmaz, and Donna Abu-Nasr