Syria forces battle to secure Damascus
ANKARA: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday told the US to stop “deceiving” Turkey and start cooperation, after Washington said it was concerned by the Turkish-led offensive on the Syrian city of Afrin. Erdogan’s typically abrasive comments came after the US State Department reacted to the capture by Turkish forces of Afrin from Kurdish militia by sounding alarm over the fate of civilians and looting. “If we are strategic partners, you must respect us and you must work with us,” Erdogan told Turkey’s NATO ally during a speech to ruling party lawmakers in parliament.
He said that the US had carried out “such a deception” against Turkey by arming the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia which had controlled the Afrin region. Turkish troops supporting Ankara-backed Syrian opposition fighters captured Afrin city during a lightning assault on Sunday, with the YPG largely withdrawing without a fight. Turkey says the YPG is linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency inside Turkey and is proscribed as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies.
But US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert on Monday said the US was “deeply concerned” after the assault triggered an exodus of Kurdish civilians from the city. Nauert said Washington was also “concerned over reports of looting inside the city of Afrin”, which AFP reporters had witnessed.
‘How is this partnership’
Erdogan hit back at the spokeswoman’s comments: “Where were you when we shared our concerns? When we said ‘let’s clean terrorists together here’, where were you?” Turkey had previously suggested that it could clear the Islamic State extremist group in Syria with the US, but Washington chose to work with the YPG. “On the one hand you will say to Turkey ‘you are our strategic partner’ and then after you are going to cooperate with a terror organization? The reality is clear,” he said.
Relations between Turkey and the US have been strained over multiple issues including Washington’s move to supply the YPG with weaponry and the failure to extradite the Muslim preacher accused of ordering the July 2016 attempted overthrow of Erdogan. “You attempted to deceive us. It was such a deception, I tell you, you sent 5,000 trucks of weapons there. You sent 2,000 ammunitions cargo there,” Erdogan said. But the president said Turkey was seizing the ammunition “little by little”. “We asked for weapons with our money, you didn’t give it to us. But you gave terrorists weapons and ammunition for free. How is this partnership? How is this solidarity?” he thundered.
Pockets of resistance
Meanwhile, Syrian regime and allied forces battled to suppress the last pockets of resistance in and around Damascus yesterday while the beleaguered Kurds in the north braced for further Turkish advances. The simultaneous assaults have sparked one of the worst humanitarian emergencies since the start of the Syrian conflict seven years ago, with aid groups struggling to gain access to the masses of displaced civilians. Washington has voiced concern that the chaos in Syria could allow a revival of the Islamic State group, whose “caliphate” collapsed late last year after three years of international military operations.
The jihadists launched a surprise nighttime attack in a southern neighborhood of Damascus, moving into the vacuum left by a deal that saw another armed group pull out exactly a week ago. “IS took full control of Qadam, and 36 government troops and loyalist fighters have been killed,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. There was no immediate comment from the regime, nor could the Britain-based monitoring group provide casualty figures for the jihadists. Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said the regime was sending reinforcements to retake Qadam, which was attacked from the adjacent IS-controlled neighborhood of Hajar Al-Aswad. The jihadists also have a presence in the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk.
Douma under attack
Assad has in recent months brought swathes of territory back under his control thanks to heavy Russian involvement, as well as support from other forces such as the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militia. He has recently focused his efforts on flushing out the last pockets that escape government control in and around the capital, the largest of them being Eastern Ghouta. A month-long air and ground assault on the area, which was home to around 400,000 residents, has left more than 1,400 dead. Regime and allied forces have retaken more 80 percent of the enclave and splintered its rump into three pockets, each controlled by a different armed group. Tens of thousands of civilians have fled both the intense bombardment and the deprivations of a siege that lasted five years.
Eastern Ghouta’s main town of Douma remains under rebel control but even as a trickle of emergency medical evacuations was scheduled to continue, the regime continued to pound the enclave. An AFP correspondent reported heavy bombardment through the night, adding that ambulances were struggling to reach the wounded so intense was the shelling. At the town’s main hospital, exhausted staff worked on extracting a palm-sized shard of wood from the head of a 10-year-old girl.
The local civil defense group known as the “White Helmets” said they were able to retrieve only two bodies and that several others remained trapped under the rubble. Clashes broke out between the Jaish al-Islam rebel group and the regime on the outskirts of Douma, the correspondent said. The Observatory said 16 children were among 20 civilians killed overnight when an air strike on the town of Arbin leveled the school above the basement they were sheltering in. Another humanitarian catastrophe was unfolding hundreds of kilometers to the north near Syria’s border with Turkey, whose forces have pressed a devastating offensive.- Agencies