Turkey is preparing an imminent attack on the Syrian city of Afrin, Turkish President
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
said Friday, as its forces closed in on the main goal of a weekslong offensive against the Syrian Kurdish enclave.
Turkish soldiers and warplanes have made significant advances in the countryside of the border region of northwest Syria since launching an offensive in January that put Turkey at odds with its international partners.
Despite the nationwide Syrian cease-fire brokered by the United Nations Security Council on Feb. 24, Turkey has intensified attacks to dislodge the main Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG. Turkey says the cross-border operation is a fight against terrorist groups and thus not covered by the cease-fire.
“Right now, the city center of Afrin is encircled,” Mr. Erdogan said in a televised speech from his party’s headquarters in Ankara. “We are at the point of entering the city center at any moment, God willing.”
Turkey seeks to create an 18-mile buffer zone between its southern border and the YPG, which has established a self-governing canton in northern Syria, much to Turkey’s concern.
The Turks and their Syrian rebel allies have now captured the entire border area. This week, they seized the of Jinderes west of Afrin and numerous villages on the other side of the city, putting them less than 4 miles from its city center.
Kurdish fighters, meanwhile, insisted Turkish forces hadn’t yet surrounded the city.
“We are providing martyrs as we stand up to Turkish aggression,” said
al-Idilbi, a commander in the pro-Kurdish Northern Democratic Brigade fighting alongside the YPG from Maryamin, 4½ miles east of Afrin. “We won’t hand over the city—not to the regime, not to the Turks, nor to the Russians.”
In February, scores of militia fighters loyal to the Russia-backed Syrian regime entered Afrin to help the Kurds defend the enclave. Dozens of pro-regime militias were killed by Turkish airstrikes. The Kurds say 283 of their fighters have died defending Afrin from the beginning of the offensive to March 7.
The Turkish offensive has driven a wedge in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance. Mr. Erdogan has pledged to continue eastward once he captures Afrin, beginning with the of Manbij. That could bring the Turks into confrontation with U.S. special-operations forces who have been based there since routing Islamic State.
The YPG is affiliated with the Turkey-based PKK insurgency, which both Ankara and Washington regard as terrorists. The U.S., which relies on the YPG to fight Islamic State, distinguishes between the two.
The Turkish threat against Afrin has also prompted Kurdish fighters in eastern Syria to abandon the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State to join the defense of the predominantly Kurdish-populated city. That has worried U.S. officials who see the eradication of Islamic State as the key objective in Syria.
Mr. Idilbi, the pro-Kurdish commander who had just arrived in Afrin after fighting alongside the U.S.-led coalition for more than three years, said he expected Islamic State to retake territory in the wake of the exodus of Kurdish fighters.
But, he said, “my family, my children and my wife are in Afrin. Do you expect me to go fight Daesh and let them come under siege?” he said, using another name for Islamic State.
The population of Afrin city has swelled in recent weeks as civilians from rural areas have fled when their villages came under attack.
Medics in Afrin have long anticipated a Turkish assault, said
director of Afrin Hospital.
“We have stockpiled medicine as much as we can, but we don’t have the capacity to last out a siege for months,” he said. “We are trying to save as many people as we can but we don’t have enough resources. If there is an assault on the city, there will be a massacre.”
—Nazih Osseiran and Erdem Aydin contributed to this article.