Raqa (Syria) (AFP) – A US-backed alliance of Syrian fighters announced on Tuesday it would redeploy around 1,700 members from front lines against the Islamic State group to a Kurdish enclave under Turkish attack.
Turkey and allied Syrian rebels are waging a weeks-long offensive on Afrin, which is held by a Kurdish militia that makes up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
At a news conference on Tuesday, the SDF announced it would pull fighters out of areas of eastern Syria, where they have been fighting pockets of IS jihadists, in order to shore up defences in Afrin.
“We took the difficult decision to pull our forces out of Deir Ezzor province and battlefronts against Daesh (IS) to head to the Afrin battle,” said Abu Omar al-Idlibi, an SDF commander, saying his fighters numbered 1,700.
Idlibi spoke to AFP in the football stadium in Raqa, which the SDF recaptured from IS in October with help from the US-led international coalition.
US and coalition officials have said they will not get involved in the Afrin fighting and expressed concern it would detract from the SDF’s operations against IS.
“We fought Daesh. We helped the coalition in Raqa, but without the coalition defending its partners,” Idlibi said.
“Our people in Afrin are our priority. Protecting them is more important than the international coalition’s decisions.”
He said his units, mostly made up of Syrian Arabs from the north of the country, were to be redeployed in the coming week.
– Hundreds return to Afrin –
Ankara and allied Syrian rebels launched their offensive against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin on January 20.
They have since captured 40 percent of the enclave, including a strip along the border with Turkey, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said on Tuesday.
SDF commander Sevger Himo told AFP: “These forces leaving will affect the war against Daesh” even if fighting will continue on the Deir Ezzor front.
Kurdish men and women fighters had grown increasingly reluctant to fight IS in recent weeks, as fellow Syrian Kurds came under attack in Afrin.
The Pentagon said on Monday that Kurdish fighters had left the Deir Ezzor front, leading to an “operational pause” in their offensive against IS.
An SDF commander earlier told AFP that hundreds of fighters from Afrin had returned to defend their relatives.
The Observatory says more than 170 civilians have been killed since January 20.
Turkey denies the reports and says it takes the “utmost care” to avoid civilian casualties.
The monitor says 300 pro-Ankara rebels and nearly 320 Kurdish fighters have also lost their lives.
Since pro-regime fighters were deployed to help the Kurds in Afrin last month, some 58 of these “popular forces” have been killed, it said.
Turkey has announced a death toll of at least 40 Turkish soldiers since the start of the assault.
Ankara says the YPG is a “terrorist” extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency against the Turkish state.
Syria’s war has killed more than 340,000 people and spiralled into a complex conflict involving world powers since starting in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.