Forced to abandon Afrin, Syria Kurds vow fierce fightback

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Beirut (AFP)

The city of Afrin has huge symbolic and strategic value for Syria's Kurdish minority but, faced with Turkey's immensely superior firepower, its fighters had little choice but to retreat.

Turkey-led forces raised the Turkish flag in the northwestern Kurdish-majority city on Sunday after a two-month assault to seize control of the surrounding enclave.

Their rapid takeover of the city is a huge blow to the Kurds, who have sought to set up a self-ruled region in Syria and are a key ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State group.

"There was no choice but a strategic withdrawal," Abdelsalam Ahmad, a leader in the Kurdish administration in northern Syria, told AFP.

Kurdish "fighters carrying light weapons" stood no chance faced with Turkey's "heavy weapons, warplanes" and latest technology, he said.

Turkey considers the YPG to be a "terrorist" extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

It does not want a Kurdish autonomous region on its doorstep like the one in northern Iraq, and has repeatedly rejected the "federal region" proclaimed by Syria's Kurds.

But the YPG has been a key ally in the fight against IS in Syria, forming the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance backed by a US-led coalition.

- 'Dented image' -

The SDF redeployed hundreds of fighters to defend the Afrin region and a small number of pro-government fighters were sent to help, but the Kurds could not withstand Turkey's offensive backed by air strikes.

YPG spokesman Birusk Hasakeh said that, after Turkey-led forces reached the outskirts of Afrin, the YPG sought to protect civilians from heavy Turkish air strikes.

"We decided we had to get the civilians out," he said.

More than 280 civilians have been killed in the assault since January 20, a Britain-based war monitor says, though Turkey has denied the reports and says it does its utmost to avoid civilian casualties.

At least 1,500 Kurdish fighters have also lost their lives in the two-month offensive, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says, most in air strikes and artillery fire.

"It certainly dents their image to the world as these great war fighters," Syria expert Aaron Stein said of the YPG.

On the opposing side, around 400 pro-Ankara fighters have been killed, the Observatory says. The Turkish military says 46 Turkish soldiers have died.

For the Kurds, "it's a military and morale defeat, but these people are fighting for something bigger than Afrin," said Stein, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center.

Long marginalised, Syria's Kurds have largely stayed out of the country's seven-year conflict as they focused on building an autonomous region in Kurdish-majority parts of north and northeast Syria.

- 'Population has left' -

Hasakeh said the YPG would now ramp up their fightback.

"Increasingly from now on, we'll be attacking... We'll target the enemy with all means," he said.

On Saturday, even before Afrin city fell, YPG attacks killed six pro-Ankara fighters in the border area of Rajo, the Observatory said.

As of Sunday, Turkey controlled an area along its border in northern Syria running across the top of the northwestern province of Idlib and part of neighbouring Aleppo.

A variety of rebels and jihadists opposed to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad are present in Idlib, the last province in Syria outside regime control.

"We consider Afrin, its areas and villages, from now on to be a military zone"," Hasakeh said.

More than 250,000 civilians have fled seeking to escape advancing Turkey-led forces and bombardment since last week, the Observatory has said.

According to Syria expert Fabrice Balanche, "almost all of Afrin's population has left".

"I don't think the Turkish army will allow it to return," he said.

Balanche said Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was seeking to establish a Turkish "protectorate" along the border.

Syria's war has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced millions -- including three million to Turkey.

"The aim is to prevent new Syrian refugees coming to Turkey, as the Syrian army will also press its offensive in Idlib, but also to make refugees return to the area," Balanche said.