Turkey's forces capture Syrian Kurdish town of Afrin

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Murat Cetinmuhurdar, Presidential Press Service, Pool Photo via AP)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Murat Cetinmuhurdar, Presidential Press Service, Pool Photo via AP)

Istanbul - Turkey's president said on Sunday that the Turkish military and allied Syrian forces have taken "total" control of the town centre of Afrin, a major development in the nearly two-month offensive against a Syrian Kurdish militia that controls the area.

The Kurdish militia called the assault on Afrin an "occupation" and vowed a "new phase" of guerrilla tactics against Turkish troops and its allied Syrian fighters.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Turkish flag and the flag of the Syrian opposition fighters have been raised in the town, previously controlled by the Kurdish militia known as the People's Defense Units, or YPG.

"Many of the terrorists had turned tail and run away already," Erdogan said in a speech in western Turkey. "In Afrin's centre, it is no longer the rags of the terror organisation that are waving but rather the symbols of peace and security."

It is not clear what Turkey would do after the capture of Afrin. Turkey views the Kurdish forces in the Afrin enclave along the border as terrorists linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency within Turkey's borders.

Erdogan has repeatedly said that Turkey will not allow a "terror corridor" along its border and has vowed to push east after Afrin. Erdogan threatened to move to Manbij, a Kurdish-run town to the east where US troops have also maintained a presence after it was cleared of Islamic State militants in 2016.

Washington's support to the YPG, including arming the militia and relying on it to battle Islamic State militants in eastern Syria, has strained relations between Turkey and the US. A push east could further inflame tension.

In an attempt to prevent such a move east, Washington began discussions to address Turkey's concerns about the Kurdish militia's presence in Manbij. Turkey wants the YPG to pull out from the town.

Meanwhile, US and Kurdish officials said Turkey's fight with the YPG has distracted from fighting ISIS. A Kurdish official on Sunday said the fight against ISIS in northeastern Deir el-Zour province, where remnants of ISIS have remained, have been put on hold as the battle for Afrin unfolded.

On Sunday, Kurdish officials said they had evacuated Afrin of civilians. Footage of long lines of vehicles leaving the town was aired on Syrian state-run TV. Fewer residents got out on foot or on motorcycles heading to government-controlled areas nearby.

Later on Sunday, limited fighting was reported in some pockets in Afrin town while Turkish military said it was combing the area for land mines and explosives.

In a press conference outside of Afrin, Kurdish official Othman Sheik Issa said a new phase of the fight will begin against Turkey, threatening "hit and run tactics" to target Turkish troops and its allied forces. He said YPG fighters remain deployed in areas of Afrin.

"Our forces in all parts of Afrin will turn into a continuous nightmare for them," Issa said. "The resistance will continue in Afrin until it is all liberated and it goes back to its rightful owners."

Ankara launched the operation, codenamed Olive Branch, against the town and surrounding areas on January 20, slowly squeezing the militia and hundreds of thousands of civilians into the town centre. Forty six Turkish soldiers have been killed since then.

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