Turkish troops and their Free Syrian Army allies on Sunday declared victory over Kurdish YPG militia fighters in the northern Syrian city of Afrin.
"Most of the terrorists have already fled with tails between their legs," said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, though enclaves of Kurdish fighters remain outside the city center. Activist groups in Afrin say about 280 civilians were killed in the fight to control the city, but Erdogan's government denies their report.
Turkey's war on the Kurds creates tension with Washington, which is allied with both sides. The YPG joined the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State, but Ankara, a NATO ally, considers the Kurds terrorists because of their links to Kurdish rebels in Turkey. Bonnie Kristian
Despite the U.N. Security Council unanimously passing a cease-fire resolution Saturday, Syrian government forces continued airstrikes in the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta area outside Damascus, killing at least 22 people on Sunday.
Since this offensive began seven days ago, more than 500 people have been killed in the violence. Doctors in the area said one of the bombs that was dropped contained chlorine gas, and one child suffocated to death from that bomb. Panos Moumtzis, U.N. regional coordinator for Syria, said he was "very, very disappointed" by the attack but thinks there is a still a chance an agreement could be made to bring food and medicine into the area. An estimated 350,000 civilians remain in Eastern Ghouta.
In order to get Russia, a Syrian ally, on board with the cease-fire, the resolution had to exclude "terrorists," The Washington Post reports, and because the Syrian government often refers to all of its opponents as "terrorists," this could be the military's justification for its continued airstrikes. This interpretation was bolstered by an Iranian military official, who said Iran and Syria will abide by the resolution, but Eastern Ghouta is "under terrorists' control." Catherine Garcia
Syrian government strikes have killed some 500 civilians, including about 120 children, over the course of a week in the East Ghouta suburb of Damascus, reports the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The activist group says Russian planes are assisting with the attacks, but Russia denies direct engagement.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces reportedly used barrel bombs and artillery shells to target the area where some 400,000 people have no option of escape. Civilians are "being forced into bunkers and many of them can't even find the time to bury their dead," reports NPR's Lama Al-Arian. The Assad regime says its goal is to liberate civilians from a nearby rebel enclave.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is pushing for a U.N. resolution implementing a 30-day ceasefire so humanitarian aid can be delivered to East Ghouta. "I am deeply saddened by the terrible suffering of the civilian population," he said, describing the situation as "hell on Earth." If the resolution passes — Moscow is demanding edits in exchange for its support — its prospects for enforcement are dubious.
Activists say at least 250 people, including 50 children, have been killed over the last few days in Eastern Ghouta, Syria, and another 1,200 were injured.
Panos Moumtzis, the United Nations' Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, told the BBC the situation there is "beyond imagination," with countless people experiencing "extreme suffering." The government of President Bashar al-Assad has been dropping bomb after bomb in Eastern Ghouta, the last major opposition stronghold near Damascus, for several days; the military says it is trying to free the area from terrorists.
The bombing went into overdrive on Sunday and Monday. Resident Firas Abdullah told the BBC that "the missiles and the mortars are dropping on us like rain. There is nowhere to hide from this nightmare and it isn't over." A U.N. spokesperson said at least six hospitals in the region were hit by bombs on Monday and Tuesday, and there are shortages of food, since only one humanitarian convoy has been let into Eastern Ghouta by the government since November. Activists say this is the worst violence in Syria since a chemical attack in 2013. Catherine Garcia
Turkey has denied allegations that it used a chemical weapon on a Kurdish village in Syria on Friday. The accusations came from Syrian Kurdish fighters as well as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group. Both said six people suffered breathing trouble and other gas attack symptoms.
"These are baseless accusations," an unnamed Turkish official told Reuters. "Turkey never used chemical weapons. We take utmost care about civilians."
The allegations may further complicate U.S.-Turkish relations. The two nations are NATO allies, but while Washington has partnered with the Kurds to fight the Islamic State, Ankara considers them terrorists because of their ties to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. Bonnie Kristian
The U.S. killed about 100 fighters late Wednesday in Syria's eastern Deir el-Zour province, helping fend off an "unprovoked attack" on allied Syrian Defense Forces by as many as 500 attackers, U.S. military officials said Thursday. The U.S. characterized the rare strike on Syrian government-backed troops as self-defense, because U.S. troops are embedded with the SDF in the area. Syrian state-run media said the strike left "dozens of dead and wounded," with the state SANA news agency calling the U.S. actions an "aggression" and "new massacre."
One SDF fighter was wounded in the attack, which appeared to be a coordinated assault using tanks, artillery, rockets, and mortars, a U.S. official told Reuters. "We suspect Syrian pro-regime forces were attempting to seize terrain SDF had liberated from Daesh [Islamic State] in September 2017," the official said, suggesting President Bashar al-Assad was trying to claim oil fields that the SDF's Kurdish and Arab fighters had seized from ISIS last year. The attack by pro-Assad forces was about 5 miles east of the Euphrates River, which serves as an informal demarcation line — Assad controls the western side and the SDF controls the east.
Separately, Syrian government warplanes struck eastern Ghouta on Thursday, killing 21 people and injuring more than 100 others, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said. Ghouta is a rebel-held pocket near Damascus, and Syrian activists in the area say Assad has used chlorine gas on civilians and fighters in the area in recent days and weeks, a claim being taken seriously by the U.S., United Nations, and other parties. Peter Weber
The Turkish Medical Association criticized Turkey's attack on Syrian Kurds. Turkey arrested its leaders.
On Tuesday, Turkish authorities detained Turkish Medical Association chief Rasit Tukel and seven other members of the association, accusing them of violating anti-terrorism laws by criticizing Turkey's attack on U.S.-backed Kurds in Syria's Afrin area. The Turkish Medical Association had warned about the humanitarian costs of the attack on the YPG-held areas near the Turkish border, leading President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to accuse the medical association of being "terrorist lovers." Prosecutors issued warrants for 11 Turkish Medical Association members in all, Turkish media says.
The doctors are not the only ones being targeted in what Reporters Without Borders calls Turkey's "witch hunt against critics." Turkish authorities said Monday they have detained up to 311 people for engaging in "terrorist propaganda" by criticizing the military operation on social media. Turkey considers the YPG militias an extension of its outlawed Kurdish rebel group the Kurdistan Workers Party. The U.S. has relied on the YPG fighters as its most effective ground force fighting the Islamic State in Syria. At least 61 civilians have been killed so far in the Turkish assault on Afrin, which started Jan. 20, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group. Peter Weber
Several Turkish soldiers were killed and a tank destroyed Saturday in Syria when a Kurdish fighter threw a grenade at them, Kurdish forces said Sunday.
The independent Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Kurdish fighter, who also died, threw a grenade down the turret of the tank, The New York Times reports, and its director, Rami Abdulrahman, said he did not believe it was supposed to be a suicide attack. The bomber has been identified as 20-year-old Zuluh Hemo, who fought with the Women's Protection Units, or YPJ, using the name Avesta Habur. In a statement, her unit, which is part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, called her a "heroine" who "attacked the tank and blew herself up with the tank," and a "model of free Kurdish women."
Turkish soldiers are fighting Kurdish militias in the Afrin area of northern Syria, with the U.S. considering both forces allies. The Turkish offensive started more than a week ago, with the Syrian Observatory estimating that 66 people have been killed in the fighting. Catherine Garcia