The Turkish army and its allies seized the northern Syrian city of Afrin from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) Sunday morning after nearly two months since the Turkish “Olive Branch” military operation began on Jan. 20.
Armed with tanks and heavy weaponry, the Turkish military, the Free Syrian Army and other militias took over downtown Afrin and raised the Turkish and Syrian flags as the Kurdish YPG retreated.
Some YPG fighters refused to withdraw and decided to stay in Afrin and fight, but the Turkish forces also said they entered the city without resistance.
As soon as they got in, Turkish-backed rebels pulled down a status of Kawa, a legendary blacksmith who is a key figure in the Nawroz Kurdish and Persian new year celebrations, which takes place on March 21.
Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army member holds a flag as they pull down Kurdish statue in the center of Afrin, Syria March 18, 2018.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said they gained full control of the city by 8:30 a.m. local time. “The majority of terrorists had already escaped, their tails between their legs.”
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a military umbrella organization composed mainly of the YPG, said the toppling of the statue represented the “first blatant violation of Kurdish people’s culture and history since the takeover of Afrin.”
The area is predominantly Kurdish and some believe the new military occupation will lead to ethnic cleansing and displacement of the local population.
In a press conference, the executive co-president of Afrin's Council, Osman Şêx İsa, said they were forced to evacuate the city's population to avoid a massacre, blaming the Turkish government for having ethnic cleansing intentions.
“The pro-ISIS Turkish government is using jihadist groups to change Afrin's demographics and establishes those reactionary forces and their families in place of the original people,” said Şêx İsa using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
He also said their forces would remain “everywhere” in Afrin to “strike the invading Turkish army and its gangs in their own base,” dismissing a victory declaration by Erdogan as worthless for Turkey and the world's public opinion.
“Afrin's resistance will continue until every centimeter is liberated and the people of Afrin come back to their homes.”
Kurdish demonstrators protest against the deployment of Turkish forces in Afrin, in Qamishli, Syria March 18, 2018.
Afrin had been a relatively safe region during the civil war and a safe haven for those displaced from many other regions in Syria. Now, its inhabitants are being displaced by the Turkish military incursion, facing insecurity and uncertainty.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that about 150,000 civilians left Afrin since March 14, adding to the thousands displaced since the start of the civil war in Syria.
Also, the SOHR reported that at least 289 civilians, including 43 children, were killed by Turkish airstrikes, artillery and executions in Afrin.
The Turkish government launched the “Olive Branch” military operation against the YPG since they consider them the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), an insurgent group in southeast Turkey fighting for autonomy of the Kurdish people.
President Erdogan has said the Turkish military will go after the YPG in other parts of Syria, including Manbij and other areas where the Kurdish militia is still fighting alongside the United States against the Islamic State group.
The PKK positions in northern Iraq have also been bombed by Turkish military since January with the aid of the Iraqi government.