AMMAN: Turkey and allied rebel factions announced on Sunday that they seized “full control” over Afrin city from Kurdish forces, the culmination of two months of airstrikes and ground offensives in northwestern Syria.
“Our forces moved into the city of Afrin in the early hours of the morning,” read a statement published Sunday by Operation Olive Branch—an Ankara-backed, Free Syrian Army (FSA) offensive against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Turkish-backed fighters claimed “full control over Afrin city” on Sunday following clashes with the YPG in the city’s western and eastern districts, the statement continued.
The capture of Afrin city, the largest population center in the northwestern, Kurdish-majority enclave, is the single largest victory of Operation Olive Branch since the offensive began in January.
Afrin is the capital of the eponymous canton in northwestern Aleppo province that is mainly governed by the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the YPG. Ankara considers both groups to be offshoots of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency inside Turkey for decades.
A Turkish Armed Forces tank in Afrin city on Sunday. Photo by Omar Haj Kadour/AFP.
Ankara launched Operation Olive Branch on January 20 in coordination with allied Syrian rebel groups with the stated goal of “eliminating terrorists” along Turkey’s southern border with Syria.
After seizing the enclave’s border region in early February, Olive Branch factions began to advance on the canton’s capital along two major axes, reaching the city’s outskirts early last week, Syria Direct reported at the time.
As rebel fighters moved on the city with Turkish air and artillery support last week, residents—tens of thousands of whom had originally sought refuge in Afrin city from neighboring countryside towns and villages—began to flee the city en masse.
An estimated 150,000 residents fled Afrin city to Syrian government- and YPG-controlled territories east of the enclave since March 14, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported on Saturday.
The PYD-led government of Afrin and the YPG accused Turkey of killing “hundreds of civilians” over the course of the military offensive in a statement released on Sunday afternoon local time.
“We decided to evacuate civilians from the city to avoid an even more terrible humanitarian disaster,” read the statement.
The statement did not explicitly acknowledge that Olive Branch factions had taken full control of the city. Syria Direct contacted Brosk Haskah, spokesman for the YPG in Afrin, for comment on Olive Branch control of Afrin city but did not receive a reply by time of publication.
Celebratory gunfire by FSA fighters in Afrin city. Photo courtesy of Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
Turkish state media and FSA factions posted photos and videos throughout the day on Sunday of rebel fighters walking through the streets of Afrin city and firing guns in celebration.
One video posted by Anadolu Agency on Sunday shows a member of the Turkish Armed Forces raising the Turkish flag in Afrin’s city center.
As Ankara celebrated the announced victory in Afrin on Sunday, YPG forces said that the battle against Operation Olive Branch “entered a new stage, from direct warfare to hit-and-run tactics,” according to Sunday’s statement, purportedly to avoid civilian harm.
“Our forces will be a constant nightmare [to Olive Branch forces],” the statement read.
“The announcement of victory by Erdogan and his henchmen will be nothing more than specks of dust.”
With additional reporting by Waleed Khaled a-Noufal, Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim and Avery Edelman.