Kurdish, Arab fighters drop Daesh fight to defend Afrin

March 07, 2018
Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters gather as they advance north of Afrin, Syria. — Reuters
Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters gather as they advance north of Afrin, Syria. — Reuters

By Delil Souleiman

QAMISHLI — Hundreds of miles away from family and friends facing an attack by Turkey, Kurdish and Arab forces deployed in the eastern Syrian desert against militants have become increasingly frustrated.

Six weeks into the Turkey-led assault on the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, young men and women are leaving the fight against Daesh (the so-called IS) group in droves to head west to help.

Kurdish militia have formed the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance that has successfully expelled Daesh from much of Syria with the backing of a US-led military coalition.

But as news of the battle in Afrin reaches them, the fighters have become reluctant to hunt down militants in their last hideouts in Deir Ezzor province.

"We're preparing to head to Afrin," SDF fighter Roshavam Qamishlo told AFP on Saturday. The enclave "needs us now more than ever".

He spoke at the funeral of three comrades-in-arms in the northeastern town of Qamishli, where dozens came to pay their respects to those killed in Deir Ezzor.

"They should have died in Afrin," he said, as their coffins were displayed in the middle of the crowd, draped in the Kurdish colors of yellow, red and green.

Arab fighters, too, have opted to ditch battlefronts against Daesh to shore up lines of defense in Afrin.

On Tuesday, SDF commander Abu Omar Al-Idlibi said 1,700 of his fighters — mostly Arabs from northern Syria whose families had sought refuge in Afrin — would be sent to defend the enclave in the coming week.

'All want to go'

Afrin, which is controlled by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militia, is one of three regions Syria's Kurds hope will be part of a self-ruled federal region in the country's north.

Turkey sees the YPG as a "terrorist" group and has bombarded the region with airstrikes and artillery fire since Jan. 20.

More than 170 civilians have died in the assault, says the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor.

Ankara however denies the claim and says it takes the "utmost care" to avoid civilian casualties.

The offensive has prompted a call-to-arms for the YPG and SDF, and one senior SDF official says "hundreds of fighters from Afrin and who have relatives there have returned to defend" their people.

As a result, the US-led coalition declared an "operational pause" to its anti-Daesh fight in eastern Syria on Monday.

US and coalition officials have said they will not get involved in the Afrin fighting and expressed concern it would detract from the SDF's operations against Daesh.

In addition to reinforcements from Daesh battlefronts, other fighters have streamed into Afrin from Qamishli, Hasakeh in the northeast and Kobane further west, says Rezan Hedo, an adviser to the YPG in Afrin.

Others even traveled from the Kurdish neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsud in the northern city of Aleppo, Hedo tells AFP.

In Qamishli, another fighter who gave his nom de guerre as Nushin Qamishlo said he would also join the fight on the Turkish border.

"We all want to go," said the 25-year-old, who sported a thick beard and whose head was wrapped in a bright blue scarf.

"We're highly capable and will take on the Turks even without the coalition's help."

Fighter Al-Ashqar Nuseen feared losing Afrin could be a huge blow to his long-awaited dreams of a federal Syrian Kurdish region.

"We will defend Afrin with all our might, taking on the Turks like we did Daesh," he said. — AFP

March 07, 2018
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