Residents of the Syrian city of Afrin are bracing for an onslaught from Turkish troops and allied rebels, threatening a fresh humanitarian crisis in the war-torn country.
Turkey was poised to enter the Kurdish-majority city after advances in recent weeks took them to within a mile of its limits.
There were fears for the some one million civilians, thousands of whom have already been displaced by fighting in villages and other cantons closer to Syria’s border with Turkey.
Convoys of activists were reportedly leaving for Afrin from the cities of Cizre in southern Turkey and Kobane in northern Syria in an effort to protect the city by volunteering to put themselves between rebel fighters and the Turks and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Turkey launched operation “Olive Branch” on January 20 against the YPG, which controls the Afrin region in northwest Syria and which Ankara regards as a terrorist group.
More than 200 civilians and 370 YPG fighters have been killed so far, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). Some 340 Syrian rebels have also been killed, and 42 Turkish soldiers.
Recent drone footage showed large-scale destruction in villages and towns on the approach to the city.
Pro-Kurdish groups held protests across the UK on Sunday ahead of the Turkish assault, calling on the international community to act.
“If the world stands by and continues to do nothing, the devastation you are seeing in Eastern Ghouta today will be Afrin city tomorrow,” said Jamie Janson, a British volunteer fighting with the YPG in Afrin, joining the plea.
He claimed that while the world’s attention was on Ghouta, “mass murder” was being carried out against the Kurds.
“For seven weeks now Afrin has been bombed and shelled without mercy. The people have resisted one of the largest armies in the world, with no air force to protect them from round-the-clock bombardment. The human cost has been enormous, the destruction indiscriminate.
“People don’t even wake up when windows rattle from early morning bomb blasts any more. It feels a bit like Pompeii the day before Vesuvius,” Mr Janson told the Telegraph from Syria.
He is one of three Britons among dozens of international volunteer fighters in Afrin, including Huang Lei from Manchester and Dan Smith, a combat medic.
Only one route currently leads out of Afrin and into government-controlled zones in Syria’s northern province of Aleppo.
The government has repeatedly offered the Kurds, who have long held separatist ambitions in Syria, protection in return for handing over their positions.
During the course of the seven-year war, the regime and the YPG have occasionally united in a marriage of convenience against their common enemy, Turkey. But Kurdish leaders have so far rejected the deal.
The latest moves will only aggravate tensions between Turkey and the US, which has urged Ankara to halt its offensive against its Kurdish partner forces – their most reliable in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
A Western diplomat said Turkey had told its Nato allies that they would stop before the city, planning only to secure the border.
They were taken aback by the recent advances. “We thought the Afrin offensive was more about Turkey trying to get the US’s attention rather that any serious attempt to take territory in Syria,” he told the Telegraph. “We told them the last thing Syria needs is a needless battle.”
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s President, on Sunday angrily lashed out at Nato, accusing the Western military alliance of failing to back its campaign.
“Hey Nato! With what has been going on in Syria, when are you going to come and be alongside us?” Mr Erdogan said in remarks to supporters. “Is this friendship? Is this NATO unity?” he asked, noting how Turkey had backed the alliance by participating in its operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
His latest comments were among the toughest he has directed in recent times against Nato, which Turkey joined in 1952 as the US sought to make sure it did not fall under Soviet sway after World War II.
2018 is shaping up to be an even bloodier year than last, which was itself one of the deadliest in the intractable conflict.
The SOHR, which tracks death tolls using a network of contacts inside Syria, yesterday published figures which showed that 511,000 people had been killed since 2011.
About 85 percent of the dead were civilians killed by the forces of the Syrian government and its Russian patron.
The onslaught continued in Eastern Ghouta, where some 1,100 have been killed in three weeks.
Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, warned that if the UN Security Council fails to act on Syria, Washington “remains prepared to act if we must,” just as it did last year when it fired missiles at a Syrian government air base over a deadly chemical weapons attack.
“It is not the path we prefer, but it is a path we have demonstrated we will take, and we are prepared to take again,” she said.