AMMAN: Pro-Syrian government militias were set to enter Afrin on Monday to oppose “Turkish aggression,” Syrian state media reported, while Ankara-backed rebels fighting in the northwestern Kurdish enclave said that they would “continue operations” regardless.
“Popular forces,” paramilitary groups loyal to the Assad government, were to enter isolated, Kurdish-administered Afrin canton, state news outlet SANA reported on Monday, “to support locals facing the aggression launched by the Turkish regime.”
Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels supported by Ankara and accompanied by Turkish troops launched a campaign against Kurdish forces in Afrin, located in northwestern Aleppo province, one month ago.
Officials in Afrin called on government forces earlier this week to enter the isolated enclave to “preserve the unity of Syria,” Nouri Mahmoud, official spokesman for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin told Syria Direct on Sunday evening. At the time, no formal agreement had been reached, he said.
Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighters near the Syria-Turkey border on Monday. Photo by Omar Haj Kadour/AFP.
The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which leads the Self-Administration government in Afrin and other Kurdish-held territories in northern Syria.
As of Monday afternoon local time, no pro-government forces had entered Afrin, multiple sources on the ground told Syria Direct.
Rojhat Roj, a YPG spokesman in Afrin, denied the existence of an official agreement between Kurdish authorities and Damascus in a WhatsApp post sent to journalists and activists on Monday. “Only discussions” are ongoing with the Syrian government, he wrote.
Syria Direct contacted the Syrian Ministry of Defense’s media office on Monday and was told by two employees there that they could not comment on recent developments in Afrin.
Turkish incursions into Syrian territory and support for rebels have soured relations between Ankara and Damascus in recent years. A pro-government presence in Afrin could complicate Turkey’s military operations there, which are currently focused on Kurdish military targets.
Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist organization because of its ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, with which Ankara has been embroiled in an internal conflict for decades. “Operation Olive Branch,” launched on January 20, aims to oust the YPG from Afrin.
Turkish-backed rebels currently control a 90km-long swathe of territory along the Syrian-Turkish border in northeastern Aleppo province. Rebels and Turkish troops captured the expanse from the Islamic State during Operation Euphrates Shield, a previous Ankara-backed incursion into Syrian territory in summer 2016.
Ankara and Turkish-backed rebels said on Monday that a potential pro-government presence in Afrin would not affect their battles to drive YPG forces from northwestern Syria.
“We are continuing the operation, regardless of whether popular forces from the regime join or not,” Muhammad Hamdeen, a spokesman for the Turkish-backed FSA faction al-Jaish al-Watani, told Syria Direct on Monday.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters at a press conference in Amman, Jordan on Monday that if pro-government forces enter Afrin “to clear out the PKK, YPG then there is no problem,” Turkish-run Anadolu Agency reported on Monday.
If the Syrian government plans to provide protection to the YPG in Afrin, “then no one can stop Turkey or Turkish soldiers,” Cavusoglu said.