Turkey encircles Kurdish-held city in Syria, escalating offensive

Turkish forces and allied rebels announced the encirclement of the Syrian city of Afrin on 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 their Syrian rebel proxies had surrounded the city.

Kurdish officials, however, denied the reports, saying that civilians continued to flee Afrin toward areas held by the Syrian government.

“The road is still open,” said one official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the battle.

Still, the renewed push 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.

Afrin is a dense urban environment, however, 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 from 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 on Monday.

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

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

Another Syrian Kurdish official, Newaf Xelil, said that Kurdish forces would “evacuate the elderly and civilians” if necessary.

“There is nothing left for the people of Afrin except resistance,” he said, adding that Kurdish forces would “never hand over Afrin to Turkish forces.”

“But a mass evacuation is unlikely,” he said.

The uptick in fighting there comes as U.S. and Turkish officials have worked to repair relations damaged by the operation and U.S. cooperation with Syrian Kurds more broadly. 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 militants in key areas of the country.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Tuesday that the United States and Turkey would decide soon on a road map to evacuate Kurdish forces from the Syrian city of Manbij, about 90 miles east of Afrin, and where the YPG helped oust the Islamic State in 2016.

U.S. forces are also stationed there to thwart any counteroffensive by Islamic State militants. Turkey had previously threatened to attack Manbij as part of its wider bid to eject Kurdish forces from parts northern Syria.

Cavusoglu 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, who 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.”

Still, Kurdish forces have said that they feel let down by the United States, which has failed to prevent Turkish attacks on Kurdish areas. In recent days, the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of militias, said it was deploying fighters from the front lines with the Islamic State to join the battle against Turkey.

“Turkish forces are continuing their relentless assault on Afrin,” Xelil said. “The world is letting them enter and proposing every kind of solution — except the withdrawal of Turkish forces.”

Turkey has denied reports of high civilian casualties. In its statement Tuesday, the Turkish military said that 3,393 “terrorists have been neutralized” as a result of the operation.

Habib reported from Stockholm. Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul and Louisa Loveluck in Beirut contributed reporting.

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