Turkey-backed forces push into Syrian Kurdish enclave
BEIRUT (AP) — Intense battles raged Thursday as Kurdish fighters attempted to repel a new advance by Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters on their encircled enclave in northwestern Syria.
Meanwhile, Syrian government forces pushed into Idlib province, an opposition stronghold nearby, inching closer to a key highway that connects Syria’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
The separate offensives have sharply worsened the humanitarian situation in northern Syria. Some 15,000 civilians have been displaced inside the Kurdish-controlled enclave Afrin, with no place to run except the district’s center, according to U.N. humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland. The figure could not be independently verified.
The U.N. says more than 270,000 have been displaced in Idlib because of the government onslaught since Dec. 15.
Turkey has mobilized some 10,000 Syrian opposition fighters to fight in its campaign against a Kurdish militant group in Afrin. That campaign, codenamed Operation Olive Branch, has drawn protest from the U.S. and France, who consider the Kurdish militia an ally in the war on the Islamic State group.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said the Turkish military cleared Bulbul, an area north of Afrin, Thursday. But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that while the Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters have reached Bulbul, “crushing” battles were continuing with the Kurdish fighters.
A video emerged Thursday showing the mutilated body of a Kurdish female fighter as what appears to be Turkey-backed Syrian fighters mill around, mocking her and touching her chest.
Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman said he obtained the video from Syrian fighters, who managed to pull the body out of the battlefield. A Kurdish official, Rezan Hiddo, said the woman and another female fighter were killed during battles on Jan. 20 in north Afrin when the offensive began. Hiddo condemned the “barbaric” act.
The Observatory said in 13 days, Turkish troops and allied fighters have seized control of 3 percent of the enclave, which has around 350 villages, relying heavily on airstrikes to advance.
Turkey considers the Kurdish People’s Protection Units - or YPG - to be an extension of a Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey and views the group at its borders as a national security threat.
On Thursday, Turkey’s military said its own Kurdish rebels have carried out two separate attacks against Turkish troops in Turkey and northern Iraq, killing at least three soldiers.
The military said rebels belonging to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, attacked Turkish troops stationed in northern Iraq on Thursday, killing two soldiers and wounding two others.
Another soldier was killed in an attack on his base near the town of Cukurca, in Turkey’s Hakkari province that borders Iraq, according to the military. Five other soldiers were wounded in that assault.
The PKK, which has been waging a three-decade long insurgency in Turkey, maintains bases in northern Iraq. Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish fighters an extension of the PKK.
Approximately 50 kilometers (31 miles) to the south of Afrin, pro-government forces pushed their way toward Saraqeb, in Idlib, the opposition’s largest stronghold in the country, coming within 14 kilometers (9 miles) of the town, the Observatory reported. The highway that links Damascus and Aleppo passes just east of Saraqeb.
Syria’s military leveraged its monopoly on air power to carve a path deep inside Idlib to reach the Abu Dhuhour air base, 26 kilometers (16 miles) southeast of Saraqeb, last month. It then started marching toward Saraqeb, an important military center for rebels and al-Qaida-linked insurgents in control of Idlib.
“The bombing has been non-stop,” said local media activist Abdulghani Dabaan.
Meanwhile, Turkey took umbrage at remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron, who warned against an “invasion operation” of Afrin.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called the warning an “insult” and said Thursday that France was in no position to “teach a lesson” to Turkey over its cross-border offensive, referring to past French military interventions in Algeria and other parts of Africa.
Cavusoglu said France understood that Turkey was fighting “terrorists” and did not aim to invade Afrin.
Turkish officials said a rocket fired from Syria hit a restaurant in the Turkish border town Kilis on Thursday, injuring at least five people.
Kilis and the town of Reyhanli, both of which border Afrin, have been the targets of multiple rocket attacks that have killed at least four people, including a teenage girl, and injured dozens of others.
Egeland, the U.N. humanitarian adviser, also said that aid deliveries to “besieged areas” in Syria have fallen to their lowest level since 2015 — before the task force was created — with no access to them at all for the last two months.
Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.