Afrin, Turkey is preparing for a street-by-street fight to capture the most important Kurdish-held town in northern Syria, and if victorious, won’t transfer control to the Syrian government, according to a senior official.
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 YPG will defend the town with all it has, said Elizabeth Teoman, who specializes in Syria and Turkey at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
“The loss of Afrin city would hurt the YPG’s legitimacy in defending ethnically Kurdish areas in northern Syria and ultimately undermine” its statehood ambitions, she said by email. “Erdogan will exploit operational success against the YPG in Syria to conduct follow-on operations against the PKK in Iraq.”
The YPG on Wednesday pledged to fight Turkish soldiers and their Syrian Arab and Turkmen allies, accusing the Turkish government of sending refugees from Turkish camps into Afrin in order to change the region’s demographic, the pro-Kurdish Firat news agency reported. It condemned the international community for not speaking out. Turkey says many of those returning are Kurds who fled Afrin.
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 intervention by Turkey, which for much of the conflict has backed anti-Assad groups, shows how the conflict is entering a dangerous new phase amid spiraling tensions between outside powers including Russia, the U.S., Iran and Israel.
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’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, has flagged what his country wants to achieve. This month he disclosed a planned joint operation with Iraqi forces against PKK bases there, and an agreement with the U.S. for Kurdish fighters to withdraw from the northeastern Syrian town of Manbij, followed by a combined American-Turkish security operation. However, the U.S. said no agreement has been reached yet on Manbij. “We’re not done talking with them,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday.