Ankara-backed rebel forces seize entire border region between Afrin and Turkey

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An Olive Branch fighter in northern Afrin canton on February 25. Photo courtesy of Firqat al-Hamza.

AMMAN: Ankara-backed Syrian rebels clashed with Kurdish forces in western Afrin on Tuesday, less than one day after taking full control of the entire border region between the isolated canton and Turkey.

“Intense” fighting between Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) continued near the Turkish border west of Afrin city on Tuesday, Suheil al-Qasim, a spokesman for rebel faction Failaq al-Awwal told Syria Direct.

Tuesday’s battles followed rebels’ capture of the last remaining stretches of Kurdish-controlled territory along Syria’s northwestern border with Turkey on Monday evening.

FSA fighters supported by Turkish troops, artillery and warplanes seized the border towns of Anqila and Sinara, 20km west of Afrin city, on Monday within Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch—a military campaign launched on January 20 and aimed at ousting the YPG from Afrin canton in northwestern Syria.

Following Monday’s advances, Olive Branch forces now control a continuous strip of territory that snakes along the Syrian-Turkish border and connects rebels in northwestern Aleppo province with their counterparts in northern Idlib province, two rebel officials told Syria Direct.

The newly opened corridor linking rebel-controlled territories in Aleppo and Idlib was “open for military purposes only” on Tuesday, said Failaq a-Sham spokesman Suheil. “Civilians cannot cross” due to ongoing fighting, he added.

YPG forces control hills overlooking the recently captured roads near the Syrian-Turkish border in Afrin, making traversing the border strip dangerous, a rebel commander from Olive Branch faction Ahrar a-Sharqiya told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity.

With the capture of any additional territory near the border, “movement will become easier for us,” said the commander.

YPG lines ‘broken’

Turkish state media confirmed that Ankara-backed rebels “cut terrorists’ access to the Turkish border” on Monday evening.

Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist organization because of its ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody insurgency inside Turkey for decades.

Turkey is continuing its military operations against the YPG in Afrin despite a United Nations Security Council resolutionpassed on Saturday that called for an immediate, 30-day ceasefire across Syria.

Olive Branch rebels told Syria Direct on Tuesday that they view the capture of the Afrin-Turkey border as a strategic victory.

Afrin’s borderlands held “the main defensive lines” for the YPG in Afrin, the Ahrar a-Sharqiya commander told Syria Direct. Kurdish forces had dug tunnels and raised cement barricades along the Syrian-Turkish border, he added.

“It was one of the enemy’s most fortified strongholds,” the commander said. “Yet it was broken.”

Turkish state media has previously reported the existence of tunnels used by the YPG to fight Ankara-backed forces in Afrin. However, Syria Direct could not independently verify the presence of fortifications and tunnels near the Syrian-Turkish border.

Syria Direct reached out to two official YPG spokesmen in Afrin canton for comment on Tuesday, but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.

With additional reporting by Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim.

Correction: A previous version of this report incorrectly identified Suheil al-Qasim as the spokesman for Failaq a-Sham. He is the spokesman for Failaq al-Awwal.