The Syrian Kurdish dream of creating an autonomous state stretching across the country’s north suffered a crushing blow Sunday when Turkish-backed rebel forces routed a militia from the city of Afrin after a nearly two-month offensive.
The enclave along the Syria-Turkey border had been controlled by the People’s Protection Units, a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia also known as YPG whose forces Turkey considers terrorists.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said in a televised address that the Turkish military and Syrian allies had taken control of the town’s center Sunday morning.
Erdogan said Turkey would take “the necessary steps to rebuild Afrin” and “wipe out traces of terrorists.”
The U.S. has provided air and arms support, funds and training to the YPG in a bid to make it the core of an Arab-Kurdish force against Islamic State extremists, even as it has worked to establish local governance councils and internal security cadres in their areas.
Those moves have infuriated Turkey, which views the YPG as little more than an extension of its nemesis the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a separatist faction in southeastern Turkey that has fought a decades-long guerrilla war against the government.
“We are not there to occupy but to wipe out terror groups and to achieve peace in Afrin,” Erdogan said during his speech.
Video released by the Turkish army on social media depicted rebels congregating around a soldier standing atop a balcony. Celebratory gunfire can be heard off camera as he unfurls a Turkish flag.
Other images depict rebels vandalizing symbols of the Kurds’ nascent administration in the area: A bulldozer uproots a statue of the blacksmith Kawa, a legendary Kurdish figure, while other fighters struggle to slash at cloth-bound road signs featuring Abdullah Ocalan, the leader imprisoned by Turkey whose visage is ubiquitous in areas of Kurdish control.
Lt. Col. Abdul Moqadam Naasan, a commander with the Northern Division, a Syrian rebel faction working with Turkey, said there had been little resistance because most of the Kurdish fighters had left by the time the Turkish-backed rebels had entered the city from three sides.
“We have to organize things here,” Naasan said in a phone interview. “We’re removing mines and car bombs, and setting up checkpoints to protect people.”
He said the offensive would soon continue eastward to take back areas including Menagh air base and the city of Tal Rifaat, 10 and 13 miles east of Afrin, respectively.
The Turkish army’s general staff said in a statement that 3,603 fighters had been neutralized since the start of “Olive Branch,” the name for the operation it launched almost two months ago.
Turkish officials said the figure included those killed as well as those who had surrendered or were captured, but they did not provide a breakdown.
The military said 46 Turkish soldiers had been killed and 225 injured. It was unclear how many casualties had been sustained by Syrian rebel factions, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group based in Britain with a network of activists in Syria, put the number at more than 400.
It also reported 289 civilians had been killed in the 58 days since Turkey first breached the border.
Turkey has vehemently denied claims of civilian casualties, and the military on Sunday said “only terrorist targets are being destroyed,” while “utmost care” was being taken to avoid harming any civilians.
In recent days, activists reported that tens of thousands of families had fled the violence engulfing the district. A large quantity of humanitarian supplies was being prepared and slated for the city of Tal Rifaat, where some 75,000 people had congregated, with more expected to arrive, said Linda Tom, a Damascus-based spokeswoman for the United Nations’ humanitarian coordination office, via the WhatsApp messaging service.
The official Syrian Arab News Agency confirmed Afrin’s takeover while accusing Turkish forces and rebels of looting and destroying houses in the city.
It put the casualties of the Turkish offensive at 1,100 and reported that thousands of families had escaped to the nearby government-held towns of Nubul and Zahra. A pro-government activist in Zahra confirmed the refugee exodus, which the U.N. said numbered almost 25,000 people.
A statement from the Kurds’ autonomous administration in Afrin accused Erdogan of attempting to create demographic changes in the Kurdish-dominated district and “exterminating an entire people.”
It added that the administration had in recent days ordered civilians out of the city to avoid a “humanitarian disaster.”
Now it would employ hit-and-run tactics instead of direct confrontation, the statement continued, and its forces would become a “nightmare” for the “Turkish aggression and its mercenaries,” striking at them “at every opportunity.”
It also excoriated the U.S.-led coalition, the U.N. and its Security Council for not fulfilling their “humanitarian and political duties towards our people and fighters who fought for all the world against Daesh,” referring to Islamic State by its Arabic acronym.
Erdogan has long insisted that Turkey will give back areas taken by his forces to “their rightful owners,” who he claims were forcibly removed by the Kurds. He recently estimated some 140,000 to 200,000 people, including rebels and their families, would return to Afrin.
Part of that mission, said Can Acun, a foreign policy analyst at the Ankara, Turkey-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, will call for the area to be stabilized.
“Ankara needs to build water infrastructure, supply electricity and provide security in the area,” Acun said.
Col. Ryan Dillon, the Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq and Syria, said U.S. troops, who are mainly in Kurdish-held areas such as Manbij, roughly 60 miles east of Afrin, were also at joint checkpoints and patrols farther west. He downplayed chances of a confrontation between Turkey and the U.S. and NATO allies.
“We’ve been doing these patrols for 16 months to prevent tensions between groups in northern Syria, and we have Turkish liaison officers with us in our offices,” Dillon said in a phone interview Sunday. “We have discussions, and we’re very open and transparent with Turkey.”