Factions within the Coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces announced on Tuesday the redeployment of around 1,700 fighters from fighting Islamic State to defend a Kurdish enclave under Turkish attack.
Turkey and allied Syrian rebels launched the Operation Olive Branch offensive more than 40 days ago, aiming to capture Efrin canton, which is controlled by the mainly Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia that makes up the bulk of the SDF.
“We took the difficult decision to pull our forces out of Deir Ezzor province and battlefronts against Daesh to head to the Afrin battle,” SDF commander Abu Omar al-Idlibi said at a news conference in Raqqa.
“We have taken out around 1,700 fighters … to defend Afrin against terrorism,” Idlibi said, Reuters reported. “We are [originally] from Aleppo and Idlib … We had to because our families were homeless and displaced to Afrin more than three years ago … We had to [redeploy fighters] unfortunately and we informed our leadership that we must pull our forces.”
“Our people in Afrin are our priority. Protecting them is more important than the international Coalition’s decisions,” Idlibi said.
He said his units, mostly made up of Syrian Arabs from the north of the country, were to be redeployed in the coming week, AFP reported, although Idlibi told Reuters that 700 fighters had already gone to Efrin. A statement on the SDF website said that the mainly Arab groups involved were Jaysh al-Thuwar, Liwa al-Shamal al-Democrati, and Idlib Military Council along with the mainly Kurdish Jabhat al-Akrad.
Hundreds return to Efrin
Turkey and allied Syrian rebels launched their offensive against the YPG in Efrin on January 20.
They have since captured a significant a strip along Turkey’s border. Turkish airstrikes have appeared to increase in recent days as the forces approach Jandaris, a strategically important town in the south of Efrin canton.
An SDF commander earlier told AFP that hundreds of fighters from Efrin had returned to defend their relatives.
“These forces leaving will affect the war against Daesh,” even if fighting continues on the Deir Ezzor front, SDF commander Sevger Himo told AFP.
In January, Syriac Military Council (MFS) spokesperson Abgar David told The Defense Post that MFS fighters would leave Hasakah to join the fight in Efrin.
‘Operational pause’ in anti-ISIS fight
The Pentagon said on Monday that Kurdish fighters had left the Deir Ezzor front, leading to an “operational pause” in the offensive against ISIS.
“Operational pauses occur regularly for a variety of reasons,” Pentagon spokesperson Colonel Rob Manning said at a press briefing. “The nature of our mission in Syria has not changed … This operational pause will not cause us to lose sight on our main objective, which is ISIS.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other officials have described Turkey’s operation as a “distraction” from the fight against ISIS in Syria.
The Coalition said on Tuesday it would continue to support the SDF as it continues to fight ISIS “remnants” in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
“We are aware of the departure of some SDF forces from the MERV and continue to point out the potential costs of any distraction from the defeat-Daesh fight,” a Coalition spokesperson told The Defense Post. “SDF is exploiting enemy weaknesses, supported by Coalition precision strikes, to contain and degrade Daesh in the MERV.”
The spokesperson said the Coalition would not support any military efforts outside those focused on ISIS.
“Gen. Mazloum Kobane’s leadership of the SDF has been exemplary. He has proven himself as a leader of character and a man of his word. His decisions on how to organize his forces to continue the defeat-Daesh fight are based on his intimate knowledge of the terrain, the enemy, and his forces’ capabilities,” the Coalition spokesperson said.
“We will continue to support Gen. Mazloum and local Syrian military and civil councils insofar as they remain focused on the defeat-Daesh fight.”
With reporting from AFP