BEIRUT • Turkey yesterday said its army and allied rebels had surrounded the Kurdish city of Afrin in northern Syria, raising the prospect of another devastating siege in the country's long conflict.
With Syria's war entering its eighth year, fighting continues on several fronts, including around Afrin and in eastern Ghouta near Damascus, where preparations were under way for the evacuation of wounded civilians.
While attention in recent weeks has focused on a ferocious regime assault on rebel-held Ghouta, in Syria's north Turkish forces and allied Syrian rebels have been advancing in their offensive against the Kurdish enclave of Afrin.
The Turkish military said in a statement that it had completed the encirclement of the city of Afrin, home to some 350,000 people and defended by a well-armed Syrian Kurdish militia, the People's Protection Units (YPG). The military provided no further details.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitor, said Turkish forces had de facto surrounded the area by moving to within firing range of the last road leading out of the city towards regime-controlled areas. It said the area included some 90 villages to the west of Afrin city.
The surrounding of Afrin city would be a key step in Turkey's "Olive Branch" operation, launched on Jan 20 and aimed at ousting the YPG, a key partner of the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Washington has provided the Syrian Kurdish fighters with arms, training and air support in the past, angering Ankara which has demanded that its ally halt its support if it wants to cooperate in the region.
Ankara regards the YPG as a terror group and a branch of militants in Turkey who have waged an insurgency for decades.
Hundreds of civilians were seen fleeing the city of Afrin on Monday towards areas under the control of Syrian pro-regime forces.
It remains unclear what Turkey's next move will be, with some analysts suggesting it will be content to lay siege to Afrin for some time while allowing civilians to leave to avoid a high-casualty offensive.
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have, meanwhile, been pressing an assault to retake the opposition-held enclave of eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel stronghold near Damascus.
Syria's conflict broke out in March 2011 with peaceful protests against Mr Assad, but a regime crackdown paved the way for a fully-fledged war. At least 353,935 people have died since, including more than 106,000 civilians, according to the Observatory.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS