Turkish-backed forces advance in Afrin despite entry of pro-government militias

AMMAN: Turkish-backed rebels advanced against Kurdish forces in northwestern Aleppo on Wednesday, linking up areas of their control in Afrin despite the recent arrival of pro-government militias to the canton, military sources told Syria Direct.

Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces captured three towns from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) along the border between Afrin canton and southern Turkey on Wednesday, rebel commanders told Syria Direct.

Wednesday’s advances came after Turkish-backed FSA fighters were reportedly able to link existing pockets of their territory on the northern and western edges of Afrin on Tuesday and draw closer to taking full control of the canton’s border with Turkey.

Capturing a strip of territory inside Afrin’s border with Turkey would not only reduce the size of the Kurdish-administered canton, but also connect FSA territory in northern Aleppo province, just east of Afrin, with opposition stronghold Idlib province to the south of the canton.

The latest FSA advances come within Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, launched approximately one month ago with the aim of ousting the Kurdish YPG militia from its territory in northwestern Syria.

In response to attacks by Turkish-backed forces on Afrin in recent weeks, hundreds of pro-government fighters arrived at the Kurdish-held canton on Tuesday

So far, at least 500 fighters with government-aligned “popular committees” have entered Afrin to “fulfill their role in protecting Syrian territory,” a commander with the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin told Syria Direct.

Syria Direct previously reported that 4,000 militiamen entered Afrin, but the YPG commander clarified that 4,ooo is the total number of fighters expected to arrive in “successive groups” over the course of a 10-day period. Two groups have arrived so far, Syrian state news agency SANA reported.

Pro-government fighters present in Afrin were deployed “to all borders, clash points and the fronts with Turkey,” on Wednesday, the YPG commander told Syria Direct. The commander requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak with the media.

Pro-government militias in Jandrees, Afrin on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Muhammad al-Afrini.

Abu al-Majd Komaleh, a member of a Kurdish FSA brigade participating in Operation Olive Branch, told Syria Direct on Wednesday that he was “not sure” whether direct clashes with pro-government forces had occured. “We don’t know who is on the other side,” he said.

Olive Branch operations “are continuing at the same pace, despite what has been said about the arrival of regime forces,” an FSA spokesman for the operation told Syria Direct on Wednesday, requesting anonymity.

As pro-government fighters entered Afrin on Tuesday to support the YPG, Ankara sent 1,200 commandos with the Turkish special forces to the Syrian border on Tuesday to shore up its own fighters there, Turkish-run Anadolu Agency reported.

The same day, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Turkish military “will lay siege to Afrin city,” Turkish Hurriyet Daily News reported.

Erdogan stated a siege of the city would take place “in the coming days,” adding that Turkish troops and FSA fighters were “advancing slowly because of the army’s sensitivity about avoiding civilian casualties.”

At least 100 civilians have been killed in Afrin since Operation Olive Branch began, according to the UK-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011. Follow Ammar on Twitter: @Ammar_Hamou.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman. Follow Mohammad on Twitter: @mohamma59717689.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations. Follow Avery on Twitter: @averyedelman.