A rain of missiles and mortar fire fell on the northern Syrian town of Maabatli, in the Afrin district, Friday. A family of seven was wiped out, and, according to local sources reported by the Syrian state news agency SANA, houses and public buildings were destroyed.
Seven days after the start of “Operation Olive Branch,” the Turkish military advance against the region, which is part of the Kurdish Rojava, the battle has become a part of daily life. The schools are closed—since the bombings are constant, it impossible to even think of sending one’s children to school. Precise numbers are unavailable, but it is certain there are at least 5,000 displaced persons, counting only those who have arrived in the Syrian villages on the northern border of the region.
Calculating the number killed is even more difficult. From the hospitals in Afrin, and from the press releases of the Syrian Democratic Forces, we’ve learned of 59 civilians killed and 134 injured, plus 43 dead among the fighters of the YPG and YPJ People’s Defense Units. The Turkish offensive is bearing down on civilians, numbering 1.2 million throughout the region, of which half have been displaced from other areas of Syria.
“In 2011, the population of Afrin was half of what it is today,” representatives of the Information Center of Afrin Resistance told us by phone. “It is a number which shows the hospitality towards people of other religions and ethnic groups. With this brutal attack, the Turkish state is trying to destroy a model of peaceful coexistence of different peoples, for which Rojava is a pioneering example.”
They further add that starting from Jan. 20, the air strikes and artillery bombardments have been continuous, and the main problem is keeping the healthcare system running: “There are six hospitals throughout the region, and only three are functional at the moment. On Thursday, Turkish fighter jets bombed the hospital in Jinderes, and that made the situation even worse. In others, there is a shortage of medicine.”
But the city of Afrin, they insist, is well protected: “One of the Turkish wartime tactics is aimed at the psychological dimension, distorting the facts. It is true that the Turkish army and affiliated extremist groups have tried to enter Afrin, but they only managed to get as far as the Qala hill, where they were pushed back by the Syrian Democratic Forces. They launched offensives against the villages of Raco, Bilbil and Jinderes, but they were stopped by the SDF.”
Two very different narratives are playing out. On one hand, the SDF reported Friday they had killed 308 fighters, including Turkish soldiers and militiamen of the Free Syrian Army, which paints the picture of a highly effective resistance on the part of Afrin, despite the nearly 700 mortar rounds and 191 air strikes against the northwestern Syrian region since Jan. 20. At the same time, Ankara is claiming much smaller numbers, with the Ministry of Health reporting Friday that only three soldiers and 11 FSA militia fighters had been killed and were 130 wounded, of which 82 had already been discharged from hospitals. The Turkish army also claimed the number of Kurdish fighters killed was not 43, but 343, eight times as many.
With the help of the censorship imposed on the Turkish press, accompanied by the well-known roundups of dissenters, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is depicting the operation as a success. According to him, it was so effective that Friday he announced its expansion, targeting not only Manbij in the central northern region of Syria, but the whole area up to the eastern border with Iraq. That corridor of land is Rojava, stretching from Afrin to Jazira: “We will rid Manbij of terrorists, as it was promised to us, and our battles will continue until no terrorist is left on our border with Iraq.”
The expansion of Turkish aims, not at all deterred by a possible face-off with U.S. Marines stationed in Manbij, or by the veiled European disapproval directed Thursday in Brussels toward the Turkish Minister for E.U. Affairs, Omer Celik, has led the Kurdish-Syrian authorities to appeal to the government in Damascus on Thursday to come to their aid in order to stop the Turkish aggression and the blatant violation of Syrian sovereignty. They asked President Bashar al-Assad to send the army in “to secure the borders of the Afrin area.”
They are asking for a helping hand from a central government with whom the Kurds have never come into conflict, preferring not to enlarge the ranks of their enemies, and never denying that they belonged to the Syrian nation. A year ago, Rojava affirmed this clearly by renaming itself the “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria,” free from references to any ethnic or confessional group.