Turkish forces have begun a siege of the Syrian city of Afrin, the country’s president said on Friday, paving the way for an assault that poses a serious threat to its civilian population. Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkish forces were 6km away from the city and would soon be able to enter. “Afrin is encircled,” he said. “God willing, we may enter Afrin any moment.” The launch of an assault on Afrin would mark the start of a new and challenging phase of Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, which aims to clear the wider Afrin region in north-west Syria of members of a Syrian Kurdish militia. It risks piling further strain on the already tense relationship between Turkey and its Nato allies. The US has relied on Kurdish units as its ground forces in the fight against Isis. But the fighting between the Kurds and the Turks risks complicating that battle. This week, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance largely made up of the Kurdish YPG militia, said it was moving fighters away from the battle against the jihadis to fend off what it called “Turkish aggression” in Afrin Turkey has already deployed police special operations units into the region, according to Turkish media. On Thursday, they helped capture the town of Jinderes, 20km west of Afrin and a key gateway to the city. However, Kurdish sources in Afrin denied the city was under siege. “They are still far away from the city,” said Tirast Cude, a Kurdish activist. Turkish forces gained experience in urban combat during heavy clashes with groups affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) in towns and cities in south-east Turkey in 2015 and 2016. Human rights groups, however, said that those operations took a heavy toll on civilians. Analysts warn that street-to-street fighting against the YPG in Afrin would be the most difficult phase of the Turkish operation, which has already claimed the lives of more than 40 Turkish soldiers and at least 100 members of the Free Syrian Army units fighting alongside them. The operation carries heavy risks for the thousands of civilians believed to be still inside Afrin. Before the war the city had a population of more than 35,000. Civilian casualties would increase pressure on Ankara from the country’s fellow Nato members and international allies. France warned Turkey last month that the Afrin operation should be halted as part of a ceasefire resolution at the UN Security Council. That was angrily rejected by Ankara.
In a report for the Istanbul-based think-tank Edam published at the start of the operation, security analyst Can Kasapoglu warned that siege tactics and urban warfare presented “enormous risks for the civilian population”, including the risk of being used as human shields by the YPG militants or being forced into paramilitary roles. He added: “Turkey and the US should give priority to a humanitarian corridor that would allow the civilians to safely leave the theatre of conflict towards US-controlled Manbij, and even further east.” Turkey’s foreign minister signalled this week that Ankara aimed for a swift operation in Afrin. Speaking on a visit to Austria, Mevlut Cavusoglu said the fighting could end in May. Turkey wanted to complete the assault as quickly as possible, he said, so that Afrin could “embrace stability and civilians can return”. However, Mr Erdogan repeated his vow that, after clearing Afrin, Turkey would press on all the way to the Iraqi border to clear northern Syria of what he has termed a “terror corridor” controlled by Kurdish forces. “Today we are in Afrin, tomorrow we will be in Manbij,” he said. “The day after that we will chase the terrorists east of the Euphrates, all the way to the border with Iraq.”