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Syrian conflict

Kurdish militants vow to make Afrin a ‘nightmare’ for Turkey

Ankara’s army and Syrian rebels celebrated taking over the once peaceful town, where armed Kurdish fighters say they are lying in wait and poised to strike

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 March, 2018, 5:34pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 March, 2018, 9:06pm

Kurdish militants have vowed to wage a guerilla war against the Turkish military and their Syrian rebel proxies after the latter swept into the northern Syrian city of Afrin, seizing control from Kurdish forces.

The Kurdish militia, the YPG, withdrew from Afrin before dawn on Sunday, members blending in with an exodus of up to 150,000 civilians who had been fleeing the city since Friday.

The Turks and their predominantly Arab allies moved quickly into the centre of Afrin and then its surrounds after more than seven weeks of clashes, which are thought to have claimed up to 250 civilian lives.

The rapid fall of Afrin – less than 48 hours after it was surrounded by the advancing Turks and Syrian rebels – belied expectations of a long, gruelling blockade, like the ongoing siege of eastern Ghouta by the Syrian military and its allies.

The withdrawing Kurdish forces framed their exit as a move to prevent more civilian suffering.

YPG officials among the exodus said some of the group’s members had remained in Afrin to mount guerilla attacks against the Turks and their allies. “We wish to announce that our war against the Turkish occupation and the … forces known as the Free [Syrian] Army has entered a new phase, moving from a war of direct confrontation to hit-and-run tactics, to avoid larger numbers of civilian deaths and to hurt the enemy ... Our forces everywhere in Afrin will be an ongoing nightmare for them.”

On Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “Most of the terrorists have already fled with tails between their legs. Our special forces and members of the Free Syrian Army are cleaning the remains and the traps they left behind.”

Afrin had been a relative safe haven throughout the war in contrast to the rest of Syria’s combustible north; not far from the Turkish border in the country’s northwest it had been a majority Kurdish enclave over recent years.

Ankara had grown increasingly irritated by the presence of the YPG in the city, which is ideologically aligned to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with whom it has fought a deadly, decades-long, insurgency. The YPG’s second and larger stronghold covers an almost 300-mile stretch of the border from the Euphrates river to Iraq.

In between is a 60-mile-wide area of Syria in which Ankara has developed a deep presence over the last 18 months – primarily to keep the Kurds from closing the gap. Kurdish groups had moved into one town in the area – Tel Rifaat – under Russian cover nearly two years ago.

The YPG had called on Russia to defend them in Afrin. However, Moscow had refused, allowing Turkish jets into the airspace to carry out attacks. Russia and the US had previously backed the YPG – for different reasons – but both sat out the clashes in a bid to protect their ties with Ankara.

Turkey has flagged plans to advance towards Manbij, where the US military maintains a base alongside its Kurdish allies. Such a move, which would potentially pitch two Nato allies against each other, has been repeatedly talked down by Washington.