Syrian Democratic Forces to withdraw fighters from eastern Syria to ‘confront Turkish aggression’ in Afrin

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SDF commander Abu Omar al-Idlibi announces redeployment of 1,700 from front lines against Islamic State to Afrin on Tuesday. Photo by Delil Souleiman/AFP.

AMMAN: The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced Tuesday that its fighters would withdraw from battles with the Islamic State in eastern Syria to defend Kurdish-held Afrin canton from a military operation by Turkish-backed rebels.

“We regretfully make the decision today…to move our fighters from their battlefront positions against Daesh [Islamic State] terrorists in the Deir e-Zor countryside,” said the SDF, “and send them to the Afrin fronts to confront the vicious Turkish aggression.”

“We never imagined it would come to this,” read the written SDF statement published online Tuesday.

The SDF, a multi-ethnic coalition of Syrian forces of which the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia is a major component, has been waging battles against the Islamic State with support from the US-led coalition since October 2015.

The SDF’s decision to divert forces away from anti-IS battles in eastern Syria comes in the wake of more than one month of battles, bombings and advances by Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions fighting the YPG in Afrin canton, an isolated Kurdish-held region of Syria’s northwestern Aleppo province.

Ankara launched Operation Olive Branch on January 20 with the stated goal of “eliminating terrorists” in Afrin near Turkey’s border with northwestern Syria, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Afrin canton is mainly governed by the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the YPG.

An aerial view of Jandrees on March 1. Photo courtesy of ANHA.

Ankara considers the YPG a terrorist organization due to its ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with which Turkey has been embroiled in an internal conflict for decades.

The United States considers the PKK a terrorist organization, but provides direct military support to the YPG as part of the SDF. American military support for the YPG in Syria has long been a point of tension between Washington and Ankara.

It was not immediately clear on Tuesday how many fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces would leave frontlines against the Islamic State in eastern Syria and redeploy to Afrin.

Kurdish news outlet Rudaw reported on Monday that 1,700 fighters from the SDF’s Arab militias would be redeployed to shore up defense in Afrin, citing Jaish a-Thuwar spokesman Abu Omar al-Idlibi. Syria Direct could not independently confirm the figure.

Brosk Hasakah, a spokesman for the YPG in Afrin, confirmed the redeployment of SDF fighters to support forces in Afrin in a conversation with Syria Direct via WhatsApp on Tuesday. Hasakah said he could not provide any statistics on the number of fighters to be reassigned.

In order to reach Afrin from their current positions in eastern Syria, SDF fighters would likely need to cross through Syrian government-controlled territory. Pro-government militias began fighting alongside the YPG in Afrin canton in late February, Syria Direct reported at the time.

SDF advances against IS in eastern Deir e-Zor province largely slowed in recent months after the US-backed forces—alongside a separate, nearby offensive by pro-government fighters—initially drove the hardline group from most of its territory in eastern Syria.  Islamic State fighters retain control of a small pocket of desertous territory on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.

A Pentagon statement on Monday announced an “operational pause” of some SDF offensives against the Islamic State in eastern Syria, Reuters reported the same day.

Syria Direct contacted the US Central Command press office for comment on the withdrawal of SDF troops and the impact of that decision on counter-IS operations, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

‘Gateway to Afrin city’

Turkish-backed FSA fighters continued to advance against YPG forces on Monday, moving deeper into Afrin after seizing the entire border region between the canton and Turkey last week.

In the canton’s southeast, Ankara-supported FSA factions reportedly “breached the defensive lines on the western axis of Jandrees,” one of Afrin’s largest cities, Suheil al-Qasim, a spokesman for the Turkish-backed faction Failaq al-Awwal, told Syria Direct on Monday.

Jandrees lies on a major highway that runs diagonally across Afrin canton from the southwest to the region’s eponymous capital to the northeast.

Turkish-backed rebels view Jandrees as “the gateway to Afrin city,” said rebel spokesman al-Qasim.

Turkish-backed FSA fighters currently surround the city of Jandrees “from three axes,” according to al-Failaq a-Thani, one of the factions involved in Operation Olive Branch.

As near-daily air and artillery strikes by the Turkish Armed Forces and allied Syrian rebels hit Jandrees, many residents have fled over the past two weeks, two sources who remain in the city told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

“Jandrees is almost completely destroyed,” Hawzan Bish, a resident and journalist in the city, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.  “The planes are striking anything that moves in the city, whether military or civilian.”

A Turkish airstrike in Jandrees reportedly killed 13 civilians on Monday, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported the same day.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported on Tuesday that the southwest Afrin city is “largely desolate.” The agency posted drone footage of Jandrees, claiming that the YPG had “evacuated” the area of civilians.

Journalist Bish estimated that roughly 50 families remained in Jandrees on Tuesday, clustered in “a few buildings that are still untouched by the bombardment.”

Saleem Hussein, another Jandrees resident and a spokesman for a Kurdish political party, also said “a number of residents, who refused to leave their homes, remain” on Tuesday.

Turkish airstrikes and ground operations on Afrin canton continue despite the UN Security Council’s unanimous adoption of a Resolution 2401 on February 24 that calls for “parties to Syria’s seven-year-long conflict to cease hostilities without delay for at least 30 consecutive days.”

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defends the right of the Turkish Armed Forces to continue military operations against the YPG despite the Security Council resolution. On Tuesday, he called the UN decision a “resolution that never went into effect,” citing pro-government attacks on the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, reported the Ankara-run Anadolu Agency.

The Health Directorate of Afrin announced in a press conference on Sunday that an estimated 33 civilians had been killed since the UN Security Council Resolution, Kurdish media outlet NRT reported the same day.

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.