Turkey ramps up assault on Kurdish enclave in Syria

Turkey turned up the heat on Syria's Afrin Wednesday, launching deadly strikes on Damascus loyalists deployed around the Kurdish enclave and closing in on its main city.

The development, which could redraw the map of northern Syria as the conflict enters its eighth year, came as Russian-backed regime forces pounded shrinking rebel pockets in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

Afrin's encirclement "will have been completed by the evening", a Turkish presidency source said on Wednesday, toning down President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's earlier statement saying it would fall by evening.

Afrin city lies in the heart of a Kurdish-majority enclave against which neighbouring Turkey launched a deadly ground and air offensive on January 20.

Before the retraction, Erdogan had told supporters in Ankara Wednesday he hoped "Afrin will, God willing, have completely fallen by the evening."

A top official in the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which controls Afrin, laughed off the claim.

"It sounds like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is daydreaming when he says Afrin will fall tonight," Redur Khalil told AFP.

AFP / GEORGE OURFALIAN Civilians flee Afrin after Turkey said its army and allied rebels surrounded the Kurdish city in northern Syria on March 13, 2018

Turkish and allied forces have almost encircled Afrin city, from which thousands started fleeing when it became apparent Ankara's goal was nothing short of full capture.

- Strike on regime loyalists -

On Wednesday, Turkish bombing raids killed 10 fighters loyal to the regime, which last month deployed pro-government forces after the Kurds asked for help.

"The air strikes targeted a checkpoint on the only road leading from Afrin to regime-controlled territory to the southeast," said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Displaced families have swelled the city's population to around 350,000, and officials feared a humanitarian crisis should Turkish forces draw closer.

Shells rained down on Afrin city on Wednesday, forcing civilians to hide in cellars.

Earlier, dozens of desperate residents were seen lining up outside a bakery that was distributing free bread.

"Regardless of who will win in the end, as soon as the battle for this small pocket begins, it will mean a massacre against civilians," said YPG media adviser Rezan Hedo.

AFP / STRINGER Syrian government forces deploy in the captured town of Beit Sawa in the Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of Damascus on March 14, 2018

On the outskirts of Damascus, hundreds of kilometres (miles) south of Afrin, another humanitarian emergency was unfolding in Eastern Ghouta.

For nearly a month, Moscow-backed Syrian government forces and allied militia have waged a devastating air and ground assault that has killed more than 1,200 civilians.

The United Nations has called for urgent medical evacuations for more than 1,000 people who desperately need medical treatment outside the besieged area.

A trickle of evacuations from Ghouta's largest town Douma began Tuesday under a deal with rebels, and more patients were allowed out Wednesday.

Dozens awaiting evacuation gathered at a Red Crescent centre in Douma on Wednesday morning, an AFP correspondent reported.

Among them was 18-year-old Omran, who was badly wounded two years ago in bombardment on Ghouta. He was missing his left leg, right arm, and left eye.

They were transported by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to the government-controlled Wafideen checkpoint on the edges of Ghouta.

An AFP correspondent at Wafideen saw around two dozen civilians arrive, including a wheelchair-bound man being helped by Red Crescent volunteers.

The Jaish al-Islam rebel group that controls Douma said around 35 sick and wounded were to be evacuated Wednesday, along with their companions.

- More raids on Ghouta -

The UN Security Council demanded a 30-day truce last month to allow for aid deliveries and medical evacuations from Ghouta.

AFP / AMER ALMOHIBANY A wounded Syrian man waits for treatment at a makeshift clinic during Syrian government air strikes on Zamalka, in the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus on March 13, 2018

Such evacuations in Syria typically see people taken out of a besieged area for care, and then transported back in after treatment is complete.

The Syrian government's assault on Ghouta has split the enclave into three sections, each controlled by different rebels.

The regime has reportedly been pursuing separate tracks of negotiations to secure local truces or evacuations from each zone.

The International Committee of the Red Cross on Wednesday said any evacuations must be carried out "humanely".

It said evacuees should be allowed freedom of movement, access to medical care, and a safe return to their homes.

Bombardment of Ghouta continued on Wednesday with fresh Russian air strikes that killed at least 10 civilians in an isolated southern zone of Ghouta, according to the Observatory.

Moscow's strikes also killed a dozen rebels from the Faylaq al-Rahman faction that controls the area, including two top commanders, the monitor said.

An AFP correspondent in Hammuriyeh, a town in the bombarded southern pocket, said raids were battering the area on Wednesday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday that Ghouta rebels were planning to stage a chemical attack to give the US-led coalition the pretext to strike Damascus.

His comments came as his Turkish counterpart visited Moscow for talks.

More than 350,000 people have died since Syria's conflict erupted in 2011.