Turkish troops and their allies on Sunday raised Turkish flags after they took control of the Syrian town of Efrin, while mainly Kurdish militias said they would now switch to a guerrilla campaign to avoid civilian casualties.
In a major victory on the 58th day of Operation Olive Branch, launched on January 20 against the enclave controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, Turkish-led forces pushed into Efrin apparently unopposed and took up positions across the town.
— CC News (@CizireCanton) March 18, 2018
The advance came in the week that Syria’s civil war entered its eighth year, with heavy fighting on two fronts – around Efrin and in the enclave of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.
In Efrin, AFP correspondents saw Turkish forces and their Syrian allies in all neighbourhoods of the city after they made rapid advances on Sunday.
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The flags of Turkey and Syrian rebel groups were raised in the city and a statue of Kurdish hero Kawa the blacksmith, a symbol of resistance against oppressors, was torn down. Kawa is celebrated in the Kurdish new year festival Newroz, which falls on March 21.
After capturing the town, pro-Turkey fighters broke into shops, restaurants and houses and left with stolen vehicles, electronic equipment, blankets and other goods, AFP correspondents said.
Civilians were seen fleeing the city and plumes of smoke rose into the sky after explosions.
According to various reports, between 100,000 and 250,000 civilians have left in recent days, fleeing southwards to territory still held by the YPG or controlled by the Syrian regime, as Turkey-backed fighters took surrounding territory and almost encircled the city despite a U.N. Security Council call for a 30-day ceasefire across Syria.
Kurds will “switch from direct confrontation to hit-and-run attacks”
Kurdish authorities vowed to retake Efrin, one of three semi-autonomous Kurdish cantons in northern Syria.
“Resistance… will continue until every inch of Afrin is liberated,” Efrin canton representatives and the YPG said in a joint statement.
“In all of Afrin’s sectors, our forces will become a permanent nightmare” for pro-Turkey fighters, the statement said, saying the “switch from direct confrontation to hit-and-run attacks is necessary to avoid the deaths of more civilians.”
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkish-backed fighters had taken control of the town at 8:30am and said a “large number” of Kurdish fighters had “fled with their tails between their legs”.
Erdogan was speaking at an event in Canakkale to mark the anniversary of the defeat by the Ottoman Empire of Allied British and French forces in the Gallipoli Campaign during World War I.
March 18 is probably the only date that brings Turks of all political creeds together, marking victory in #Gallipoli campaign during WWI. Erdogan made sure #Afrin was taken from #YPG on March 18. He most certainly knows how to play the game of symbolism in domestic politics.
— BurakKadercan (@BurakKadercan) March 18, 2018
Erdogan has said the operation could move on other areas of northern Syria, including Manbij where U.S. troops are stationed to deter attacks by Turkey-backed rebels, as well as Syrian Democratic Forces-held territory east of the Euphrates.
Turkey sees the YPG as a Syrian offshoot of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state. But the mainly Kurdish militia is also the backbone of the U.S.-led Coalition-backed SDF that successfully expelled the Islamic State from large parts of eastern Syria.
With reporting from AFP