Turkey turned up the heat on Syria’s Afrin Wednesday, launching deadly strikes on Damascus loyalists deployed around the Kurdish enclave and closing in on its main city.
The development, which could redraw the map of northern Syria, came as Russian-backed regime forces pounded shrinking rebel pockets in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.
The violence in both enclaves came as the foreign ministers of Turkey and Russia, the two major foreign players in a conflict entering its eighth year Thursday, met in Moscow.
A Turkish presidency source said Afrin’s encirclement “will have been completed by the evening”, retracting an earlier statement by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan predicting its fall on Wednesday.
Afrin city lies in the heart of a Kurdish-majority enclave in northern Syria which neighbouring Turkey sees as a threat and against which it launched a deadly ground and air offensive on January 20.
Before the retraction, Erdogan had told supporters in Ankara Wednesday he hoped “Afrin will, God willing, have completely fallen by the evening.”
A top official in the People’s Protection Units (YPG) Kurdish militia, whose fighters are defending Afrin, laughed off the claim.
“It sounds like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is daydreaming when he says Afrin will fall tonight,” Redur Khalil told AFP.
Turkish and allied forces have already almost completely encircled the city of Afrin, from which thousands of civilians started fleeing in recent days, when it became apparent Ankara’s goal was nothing short of fully capturing the enclave.
– Strike on regime loyalists –
On Wednesday, Turkish bombing raids killed 10 fighters loyal to the regime, which had last month sent pro-government forces after the Kurds asked for help.
“The air strikes targeted a checkpoint on the only road leading from Afrin to regime-controlled territory to the southeast,” the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
The escalation of violence in Afrin, one of the cantons in the self-proclaimed Kurdish administration in northern Syria, has displaced thousands of civilians and left those trapped in the enclave with limited supplies.
On the outskirts of Damascus, hundreds of kilometres south of Afrin, another humanitarian emergency was unfolding in Eastern Ghouta.
For nearly a month, Moscow-backed Syrian government forces and allied militia have been waging a devastating air and ground assault that has left around 1,200 civilians dead.
Even before the onslaught, Ghouta’s 400,000 residents were suffering a five-year regime siege that left hospitals crippled by shortages of medicine and other equipment.
The United Nations has called for urgent medical evacuations for more than 1,000 people who are in desperate need of being taken out of the area for treatment.
A slow trickle of evacuations from Ghouta’s largest town of Douma began Tuesday under a deal with rebel factions there, and more patients were expected to be allowed out Wednesday.
“Today, people with medical conditions will be evacuated for treatment,” said Yasser Dalwan, a high-ranking member of the Jaish al-Islam rebel group.
“They are all civilians. There are around 35 people, along with their companions,” he said.
Dozens of people awaiting evacuation could be seen gathering at the Red Crescent’s centre in Douma, an AFP reporter said.
– More raids on Ghouta –
Among them was 18-year-old Omran, who was badly wounded two years ago in bombardment on Ghouta. He was missing his left leg, his right arm, and his left eye.
The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution last month calling for a 30-day truce to allow for aid deliveries and medical evacuations from Ghouta.
Such evacuations in Syria have typically seen people taken out of a besieged area for care, and then transported back in after treatment is complete.
The Syrian government’s assault on Ghouta has split the opposition enclave into three shrinking sections, each controlled by a different armed faction.
The regime has reportedly been pursuing separate negotiations tracks to secure local truces or evacuations from each zone.
But it has also pressed its blistering offensive, with help from allied militiamen and Russia’s air force.
Air strikes by Moscow early Wednesday killed at least seven civilians in an isolated southern zone of Ghouta, according to the Observatory.
An AFP correspondent in Hammuriyeh, a town in the bombarded southern pocket, said air strikes battered the area all night.
More than 350,000 people have been killed since Syria’s conflict broke out in 2011 with protests against President Bashar al-Assad.
He has maintained his grip on power despite global calls to step down and outrage at the fierce offensives he has waged to retake towns and cities from rebel fighters.