Syrian rebels allied with Turkish army fire on YPG positions in Afrine region, February 19, 2018
The Turkish offensive against a Kurdish militia in Afrine on Tuesday took a dramatic turn with the deployment of pro-Syrian forces in the Kurdish enclave, immediately targeted by Turkish fire.
The arrival of pro-regime forces in a semi-autonomous Kurdish region that has escaped Damascus‘ control since 2012 marks a major development adding to the complexity of the civil war that has ravaged Syria for almost seven years.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, „hundreds of combatants were deployed“ Tuesday afternoon in the Afrine area.
„Popular forces have entered the district of Afrine,“ said Rojhad Rojava, a Kurdish defense official in the local administration.
The forces, whose imminent arrival was announced on Monday by the official Syrian media, will be deployed along the Turkish border, said the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia that Ankara considers „terrorist“ „. Turkey desperately wants to chase Afrine’s YPG in favor of its offensive which came on Tuesday in its second month.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech at a meeting of his party in Ankara Parliament on February 20, 2018
Shortly after arriving in Afrine, pro-regime forces were targeted by Turkish artillery, according to the official Syrian news agency Sana.
In Ankara, state media reported „warning shots“ against these forces.
„The pro-regime terrorist groups who are trying to advance to Afrine have fallen about 10 km from the city because of the warning shots,“ Anadolu said.
As a threat to Damascus, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had however said in the morning that his army „block the road“ to any outside reinforcement arriving at Afrine. But Syrian loyalist forces deployed there a few hours later.
Erdogan also said that Turkish forces will soon besiege the city of Afrine. His plans may, however, be thwarted by the latest developments.
It was not immediately clear whether the Syrian deployment was made with Moscow’s approval, a key ally of the regime of Bashar al-Assad’s president and who controls the airspace in the north of the country. Syria, an important lever that can allow it to put pressure on Ankara.
– Slow progress –
The Turkish offensive on Afrine
Moscow may have tacitly given the go-ahead to the Afrin offensive, it has not failed to show its bad mood towards Ankara by closing the airspace to its aircraft for several days after a Russian aircraft was shot down in an area of northern Syria where Turkish military observers are expected to enforce a de-escalation zone.
Russia and Turkey cooperate closely on the Syrian issue even if they support opposing sides in the conflict. Erdogan moved closer to Moscow after being frustrated by US support for the YPG, which has become their spearhead on the ground in the fight against Islamic State (IS) jihadists.
Although he admitted to having lost 32 soldiers, Ankara repeats that the offensive is going „as planned“.
The Turkish forces have so far taken control of more than 40 villages, but most of these are in border areas in the north of the Afrine region.
„As we act to avoid endangering our security forces and taking into account civilians, it may seem that we are moving slowly,“ Erdogan agreed.
Syrian rebels backed by Turkey in Salwah, 10 km from the Turkish border, February 19, 2018
Some 205 pro-Ankara fighters and 209 YPG members have been killed since the beginning of the operation, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (OSDH), which also reports 112 civilians killed, which Ankara denies.
On the diplomatic front, the offensive has heightened tensions between Ankara and Washington. So much so that Turkey is already threatening to advance towards Minbej, about 100 kilometers east of Afrine, where US troops are deployed alongside the YPG.
In an effort to ease the tension with a US ally in NATO, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a weekend visit to Ankara during which he held marathon talks. with Erdogan and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu.
At the end of this visit, Washington and Ankara agreed to work „together“ in Syria to overcome their crisis, with „in priority“ the search for a solution for Minbej.