Turkish-backed rebels poised to encircle Afrin city after days of swift advances

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A Syrian rebel fighter looks out over Kurdish-held Afrin city on Monday. Photo courtesy of Firqat al-Hamza.

AMMAN: Turkish-backed Syrian rebels are moving to “surround and isolate Afrin city,” the eponymous capital of a Kurdish-held enclave that has been the target of a months-long military operation, a rebel spokesman told Syria Direct on Monday.

Free Syrian Army fighters “are now on the outskirts of Afrin city,” Suheil al-Qasim, the spokesman for Failaq al-Awwal, a rebel faction participating in the Turkish-backed offensive on Afrin canton, told Syria Direct on Monday.

Ankara-backed rebels seized control over a series of “strategic hills” overlooking Afrin city in recent days, the spokesman added.

Less than two kilometers currently separate Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions from Afrin city, following three days of swift advances against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Afrin is the capital of an eponymous canton in northwestern Aleppo that is mainly governed by the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the YPG. Ankara considers both groups to be offshoots of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency inside Turkey for decades.

On January 20, Turkey launched a military operation dubbed “Operation Olive Branch” in coordination with allied Syrian rebel groups with the stated goal of “eliminating terrorists” near Turkey’s border with northwestern Syria.

FSA factions supported by Turkish airstrikes and artillery fire seized the Kurdish-held enclave’s entire border region with Turkey from YPG fighters by early February, Syria Direct reported.

Olive Branch factions advanced towards the canton’s capital along two major axes over the past week after capturing cities and villages southwest and northeast of Afrin city.

Today, roughly six kilometers separate the two FSA salients. By joining the two frontlines, Olive Branch forces would encircle Afrin city as well as large swathes of countryside to the east.

Syria Direct contacted Nouri Mahmoud, official spokesman for the YPG, on Monday for confirmation of Operation Olive Branch advances. He said YPG fighters inflicted “heavy losses and destroyed military vehicles” belonging to the Turkish Armed Forces, but did not elaborate on the advances.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency reported “rapid advances” by the rebel factions of Operation Olive Branch on Monday, claiming that 1,100 square kilometers of Afrin were “cleared of terror threats” since the operation began in January.

Coinciding with the latest advances by Turkish-backed rebels, pro-government militias that entered Afrin in support of the YPG last month withdrew from the canton, the state-funded news outlet Russia Today reported on Sunday.

YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud did not confirm that pro-government militias withdrew from Afrin canton, but said that the fighters were “evading their duties.”

“The groups belonging to the Syrian Army are not capable of protecting the unity of Syrian territory,” the spokesman said.

‘Brink of catastrophe’

Olive Branch forces are now closing in on a capital city teeming with displaced people, as tens of thousands of residents are taking shelter there after fleeing ground battles, shelling and Turkish airstrikes elsewhere in Afrin in recent weeks.

Afrin city and its surrounding villages are now home to 800,000 people, one canton official told Syria Direct. YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud claimed “more than one million Syrian citizens” are currently in Afrin. Syria Direct could not independently verify either statistic.

“The city is overcrowded with a huge number of displaced residents who came here,” a member of Afrin’s Executive Council told Syria Direct from inside the city on Monday. He asked to not be identified by name as he is not authorized to speak to the media.

In the first two weeks of the Turkish military operation alone, up to 30,000 residents fled their homes, with the majority seeking shelter in Afrin city, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Now, civilians in the enclave’s capital are fleeing deeper into the city center after FSA forces reached the outskirts, two residents on the ground told Syria Direct on Monday.

Some Afrin residents are taking shelter underground, resident Jano told Syria Direct on Monday. He said he fears “a massacre” if Turkish airstrikes hit the packed urban center. Jano asked that his full name and personal details not be published, fearing reprisals if Turkish-backed rebels seize the area.

“The city is on the brink of catastrophe,” he said.

Resident Jano and the council member said some Afrin city residents are fleeing towards the Kurdish-held countryside to the east, but both estimated that most residents remain in the city center.

“It is difficult to leave as the roads leading out [of the city] are being bombed,” the council member said, adding that Turkish air and artillery fire struck the outskirts of Afrin city on Monday. The Kurdish news outlet Rudaw reportedTurkish airstrikes near Afrin city on Monday.

Syria Direct contacted the Kurdish Red Crescent on Monday for statistics regarding Afrin city’s current population and rates of displacement, but were told that those figures were not available.

A report by Anadolu Agency on Monday claimed that YPG fighters are barring civilians from leaving the city and accused the Kurdish militia of using civilians as “human shields.”

The same report added that YPG “shelters are largely located in Afrin’s city center.”

With additional reporting by Amani al-Khaldi.

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.