Syrian president Assad says Ghouta operation will continue

Turkish warplanes kill 40 pro-government fighters in Kurdish stronghold Afrin

Syrians flee their homes in the town of Beit Sawa in Syria’s besieged eastern Ghouta region on Sunday following reported air strikes. Photograph:  Abdulmonam Eassa/AFP/Getty Images

Syrians flee their homes in the town of Beit Sawa in Syria’s besieged eastern Ghouta region on Sunday following reported air strikes. Photograph: Abdulmonam Eassa/AFP/Getty Images

 

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad said on Sunday that a military operation against the eastern Ghouta area near Damascus would continue and in parallel civilians would be allowed to leave the rebel-held area.

“There is no contradiction between a truce and combat operations. The progress achieved yesterday and the day before in Ghouta by the Syrian Arab Army was made during this truce,” Mr Assad said in comments to journalists.

“Therefore we must continue with the operation in parallel with opening the way for civilians to leave.”

He was referring to a daily humanitarian ceasefire called by Russia from 9am to 2pm, which the United States has dismissed as “a joke”.

On Saturday, dozens of pro-Syrian government fighters were killed in an assault by Turkish warplanes on the northwestern Syrian region of Afrin, according to a local journalist and a militia spokesman.

Fighting has intensified in the region in the past few days, as Turkey has sent reinforcements to press its offensive against towns held by Kurdish groups. Just a day earlier, eight Turkish soldiers were killed, Turkey’s defence ministry said in a statement, and more were wounded.

Soldiers loyal to President Assad had entered Afrin, a Kurdish stronghold, last week to support the Kurdish militia known as the YPG. Turkey and its allied Syrian rebel fighters say the YPG is the focus of their operation, which began in January.

Air strike

That has put them at odds with forces loyal to Mr Assad. Saturday’s air strike hit a camp in Kafr Jina, according to a spokesman for YPG forces in the area and a Kurdish reporter on the ground.

The reporter, Firhad Shami, who was in Kafr Jina, said that at least 40 fighters were killed in the air strikes, though the exact number could not be confirmed. “We managed to pull out 23 bodies. The rest are still in the bunker; the Kurdish Red Crescent couldn’t pull them all because of the shelling,” he said in a message. It was the third time in 48 hours that Turkish warplanes had struck pro-government forces in Afrin.

By Saturday evening, the Syrian state news agency Sana had not confirmed that any pro-government forces had been killed in the region, only civilians who had died in an earlier strike.

“Forces of the Turkish regime and its mercenaries of the terrorist groups on Friday night targeted the Afrin area with all types of weapons, leaving 20 civilians martyred or injured,” Sana reported, calling the attack a “violation” of a new UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire.

Clashes

Despite that, clashes have continued in Afrin and in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta where Syrian government forces are conducting air strikes on residential neighbourhoods, home to 400,000 civilians. The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led, US-backed alliance, said in a statement that Turkish air strikes had targeted positions held by the Syrian army’s “popular forces”.

Prime minister Binali Yildirim of Turkey said Saturday that his country’s forces had captured the strategically important town of Rajo from Kurdish forces. “Afrin is surrounded,” Mr Yildirim said, according to local news outlet Hurriyet.

“We have cleared all nearby border areas of terror nests.” Turkey views the YPG’s forces as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a group that has fought a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party is designated a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Turkey. But the YPG has been an important ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.