Ankara has sent police special forces units to the northern Syrian region of Afrin in anticipation of a new phase of its campaign against the Kurdish militias. It also says the UN-backed ceasefire does not affect its operation.
The special forces units crossed into Syrian territory from the southern Turkish provinces of Kilis and Hatay, local media reported. The new forces are expected to hold villages taken by Turkish troops from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as well as to take part in urban combat as Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch apparently moves from the countryside to the major settlements.
“Deploying special forces is part of the preparation for a new fight that is approaching,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag told Turkish NTV. “The fight will shift to places where there are civilians, as the area (of fighting) narrows,” he said, adding that the special forces units have experience in fighting militants in residential areas.
Even though the Turkish operation has entered its sixth week, most of the larger towns in the Kurdish-held enclave, including the city of Afrin itself, remain in the hands of the YPG. Still, Turkish forces drove the Kurdish militias from all areas bordering Turkey, local media report. On February 20, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the troops would lay siege to Afrin “in the coming days.”
Operation Olive Branch will continue despite a UN Security Council resolution envisaging a 30-day nationwide ceasefire in Syria. The resolution, which was unanimously adopted by the security council on Saturday, says that the ceasefire does not apply to Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS), Al-Nusra, or any other terrorist organization.
Ankara believes this exemption applies to the Kurdish militias as well. “When we look at the UN Security Council resolution, we see that fight against terror organizations is outside its scope. Therefore, it will not affect Turkey’s ongoing operation,” Bozdag said, as cited by Anadolu news agency.
The Turkish military began its operation against the YPG, a Kurdish-led militia, as it considers it to be a wing of the PKK, an armed movement that Ankara regards as terrorist. The YPG, which controls several enclaves in northern Syria, including Afrin, secured the territories from Islamist rebels and other extremist groups over the course of the Syrian conflict with the US-led coalition’s backing.
The number of “terrorists” who were “neutralized” over the course of the operation has reached 2,059, the Turkish General Staff said on Monday. Ankara also insists that the offensive is solely aimed at wiping out terrorists, denying allegations that it has targeted civilians.
The Turkish operation also increases tensions between Ankara and Damascus. The Syrian government has repeatedly condemned the operation as a violation of the country’s sovereignty and has accused Ankara of “aggression” against the Syrian people. Damascus also sent militias to Afrin to reinforce locals in their resistance against the Turkish onslaught.
This information was disputed by Ankara, which said the Syrian forces were prevented from entering the region. Erdogan also warned that the incoming militias would “pay a heavy price.”