Armed groups allied to Damascus were sent to Afrin this week to help Kurdish rebels counter a month-long military offensive by Turkish forces in the region. But the convoy of about 50 vehicles withdrew after coming under artillery fire, marking a dangerous new escalation in the seven-year Syrian civil war.
Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told reporters on Wednesday that more violence could follow if Damascus pressed ahead with sending reinforcements to the highly charged area.
“Any step by the regime or other elements in this direction will surely have serious consequences,” he said.
The Syrian state news agency, SANA, responded defiantly soon afterward, reporting that “new groups of popular forces” were arriving in Afrin to fight back against “the continued aggression of the Turkish regime” — a move that leaves both sides perilously close to all-out confrontation.
Turkey launched its incursion into northern Syria on Jan. 20 with the aim of routing militants belonging to groups including the US-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It considers both groups as terrorist organizations and threats to its national security.
Ankara claims more than 1,600 YPG and Daesh fighters have either been killed, captured or surrendered since “Operation Olive Branch” began. In remarks to reporters, Kalin said anyone who intervened to help the Kurdish rebels was “on the same level” and “for us, that would make them legitimate targets.”
Having swept through the surrounding countryside, Turkey intends to lay siege to Afrin city in the coming days. However, Syria has vowed to fight back, with Riyad Haddad, its ambassador to Russia, describing Ankara’s decision to fire on its militias as “a blatant violation of Syria’s sovereignty.”
The YPG has controlled Afrin since Damascus pulled its forces from Kurdish majority areas in the north of the country in 2012 — a strategic withdrawal that appeared designed to sow confusion among the country’s disparate insurgent groups and keep neighboring Turkey on guard.
Experts told Arab News that the Syrian regime’s decision to deploy militias to Afrin this week could not have been made without the knowledge of its staunch ally Russia.
Metin Gurcan, a former military officer and senior security analyst at the Istanbul Policy Center, said the move was deliberately designed to “create a risky operational environment.”