Turkey encircles Kurdish-held city in Syria, escalating offensive


Turkish forces and allied rebels announced the encirclement of the Syrian city of Afrin Tuesday, in a major escalation of a weeks-long offensive to oust Kurdish militants from the area.

“The city center of Afrin was besieged and critical areas for subsequent operations have been seized,” the Turkish Armed Forces said, adding that the offensive, known as Operation Olive Branch, “continues successfully as planned.”

A Britain-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, confirmed that Turkish troops and its Syrian rebel proxies had surrounded the city.

A spokesman for the Kurdish YPG, or People’s Protection Units, told the Reuters news agency that “all the roads” in and out of Afrin were being targeted by Turkish forces.

“There is no way to go freely to Afrin,” Nouri Mahmoud told the news agency.

The siege of Afrin follows rapid advances by Turkish-backed rebels against Kurdish militants in recent days. Turkey, which is fighting its own Kurdish insurgency at home, has said that Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria is a threat to its national security. It aims to create a buffer zone along the border, patrolled by its proxies, officials said.

But Afrin city is a dense, urban environment, and rights groups point to the potential for high civilian casualties if the battle reaches residential areas. The city, which was majority Kurdish before the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, lies just across the border with Turkey.

The YPG controls two other enclaves in Syria, which it had hoped to join as the foundation for a potential future state.

“The offensive is now pushing ever closer toward the city with its large civilian population,” United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, told the U.N. Security Council Monday.

A January report from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that Kurdish-held areas in the area, including the Afrin region, have a population of 323,000 people, with about 125,000 of those internally displaced.

So far, the fighting has “resulted in significant civilian displacement with reports of numerous casualties and damage to infrastructure,” Guterres said.

The operation has also ripped through the decades-old U.S.-Turkish alliance. The United States has worked closely with Kurdish fighters to battle Islamic State militants in Syria. And Turkish officials have blamed the United States for allying with the YPG, which is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in Turkey.

U.S. officials say that Kurdish fighters have been the most effective in taking on the Islamic State jihadists in key areas of Syria.

Also Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that the United States and Turkey would decide soon on a road map to evacuate Kurdish forces from the nearby city of Manbij, where the YPG helped oust the Islamic State in 2016.

He spoke to reporters on a plane to Moscow, and his comments were reported by the Turkish press.

“Both sides recognize that there is going to be compromise here,” a European diplomat said of the United States and Turkey. The official, which works on Syria, requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the crisis.

“The U.S. is not going to forsake the YPG as an ally,” the diplomat said. “But the Turks don’t like to see the YPG … operate in areas where they consider it appropriate.”

Louisa Loveluck contributed reporting from Beirut.

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