More pro-Assad forces in Afrin – Fear, outrage over bloodshed in Syria enclave

Syrians rescue a child following a reported regime air strike in the rebel-held town of Hamouria, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus on Feb 21. (AFP)

BEIRUT/ANKARA, Feb 21, (Agencies): Turkey warned on Wednesday that pro-Damascus forces would face “serious consequences” for entering Syria’s Afrin region to help Kurdish fighters repel a Turkish offensive.

Their arrival raises the spectre of wider escalation on Syria’s northern battlefront, which includes the Syrian army, allied Iran-linked militias, Kurdish forces, rebels, Turkish troops, and Russian and American forces.

The Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said Turkish planes bombed a town in Afrin and fighting raged on the ground on Wednesday. Turkey launched its assault last month to drive out the YPG, which it deems a menace along its border. More paramilitary forces aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad went to Afrin on Wednesday, state media said. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman said shellfire had forced an earlier convoy to retreat. “Any step by the (Syrian) regime or other elements in this direction will surely have serious consequences,” Ibrahim Kalin told a news conference.

A commander in the alliance fighting alongside Damascus in Syria’s seven-year war told Reuters that pro-government forces in Afrin had returned fire after rebels backed by Turkey attacked them on Tuesday night. A new confrontation, pitting the Turkish army directly against pro-Assad forces, would further scramble the web of alliances and rivalries already at play in northern Syria. Erdogan has described the pro-government fighters as Shi’ite Muslim militias acting independently and warned they would pay a heavy price.

Kalin said Turkey was not in direct talks with the Syrian government, but its messages to Damascus were being indirectly conveyed. “The Syrian forces that entered and are still entering will be in the suitable locations to repel the Turkish occupation army,” said Rezan Hedo, a YPG media adviser. They would deploy near the Turkish border, the YPG has said. The pro-Assad commander said Russia had intervened to “delay the entry” of Syrian army troops, and so allied “popular forces” with heavy weaponry went instead. Some Syrian Kurdish officials have said they believed Moscow wanted to keep leverage with Ankara to advance its wider ambitions of brokering a settlement of the conflict.

Turkey and Russia have fought on opposing sides during the seven-year war, with Moscow the key ally of Assad and Ankara one of the main backers of rebels fighting to overthrow him. But Ankara shifted its Syria policy, seeking to mend ties with Russia and turning its firepower against Kurdish forces. Turkey has in recent months lent support to diplomacy by Russia, whose jets helped Assad’s government seize back most major cities since 2015. Ankara said last month it had sought Moscow’s agreement before the Afrin assault.

“The Russians are the ones who decided this game,” said Kurdish politician Fawza Youssef. “The Russians have been playing it like this for a while … They pressure the Turks with the Kurdish card (and vice versa),” said Youssef, a senior member of the Kurdish-led autonomous authority in north Syria. There was no comment from Moscow on  Syrian deployments. Ahead of the Turkish offensive last month, Russia pulled out the military police it had deployed in Afrin last year. The Turkish offensive was slow to achieve gains along the frontier but pushed several km (miles) into Syria. Still, the YPG holds most of the Afrin region including its central town. Turkey regards the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdish PKK movement which has waged a threedecade insurgency on its soil, though the groups say they are independent.

Mounting death toll
Syrian jets carried out more deadly raids on Eastern Ghouta Wednesday, as Western powers and aid agencies voiced alarm over the mounting death toll and spiralling humanitarian catastrophe. The regime of al-Assad intensified its strikes this month on the rebel enclave east of Damascus, where close to 300 civilians have been killed since Sunday. Warplanes continued to pound Eastern Ghouta towns on Wednesday, killing 24 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Most of them were killed when barrel bombs — crude, improvised munitions that usually cause indiscriminate damage — were dropped on the town of Kfar Batna, the Britain-based war monitor said.

More than 1,400 people were wounded in three days that saw the bloodiest wave of strikes on the enclave since the start of the civil war in 2011. Medics have been overwhelmed throughout February. The five-year siege of the enclave has restricted access to medical supplies, while three clinics were hit and put out of service this week. The hospital in the town of Arbin was hit twice on Tuesday and the Observatory said Russian warplanes had carried out that strike and others, its first on Eastern Ghouta in three months.

The Kremlin on Wednesday denied any involvement in the strikes and rejected reports to the contrary as “groundless accusations.” The hospital in Douma, the largest town in Eastern Ghouta, is still functioning but the influx of wounded is such that doctors and nurses cannot save everyone. “We received a mother yesterday who was pulled from the rubble. She was six-months pregnant and seriously wounded,” said surgical nurse Maram. “We did a C-section but could not save her, nor her baby,” she said. Next to her a man expressed his anger after bringing the body of his neighbours’ daughter — retrieved dead from the rubble of her home — to the mortuary. “What crime did this girl commit, what is her crime?,” he shouted. Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said at least 67 children were among the 274 people killed in strikes since Sunday. The bloodshed prompted UN children’s agency UNICEF to issue a largely blank statement saying “we no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering.”

UN chief Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply alarmed” by the escalation of violence. US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert criticised the “siege and starve tactics” of the Assad regime and said: “The cessation of violence must begin now.” Eastern Ghouta is home to more than 400,000 people living under crippling siege, with little access to food or basic services. Anti-regime groups, mostly Islamist factions as well as Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, have controlled the area since 2012. With the Islamic State group’s once sprawling “caliphate” now wiped of the map, the regime looks bent on completing its reconquest by taking on remaining enemies.

In recent days, government forces have been massing around Eastern Ghouta, apparently preparing for a ground offensive. “We have long feared Eastern Ghouta will see a repeat of the terrible scenes observed by the world during the fall of east Aleppo and these fears seem to be well founded,” said Mark Schnellbaecher, the regional head of the International Rescue Committee.

The battle that saw government forces wrest back the country’s second city from rebel forces in 2016 caused extensive destruction and suffering that drew comparisons with the World War II era devastation in Stalingrad and the Warsaw ghetto. The regime is also seeking to restore its grip on other areas in the north, including the province of Idlib, the last one that remains largely outside its control.

On Tuesday, regime forces deployed inside the region of Afrin, a Kurdish enclave along Syria’s northern border with Turkey. The move came after Kurdish forces asked Damascus to protect it from a month-old offensive by Ankara. They quickly came under shelling by Turkish forces, who said they had fired “warning shots” at the “pro-regime terrorist groups”.

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