The government of dictator Bashar al-Assad confirmed on Monday that it would send Syrian military troops into Afrin to fight against the Turkish military, which invaded the northern province last month.
Afrin is part of Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava). The Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) control that territory. The Turkish government considers the YPG terrorists and announced it would launch “Operation Olive Branch,” an invasion of Afrin, in January. Ankara also opposes the continued presence of the Assad regime in power.
The YPG and the Syrian military have largely avoided each other in the seven-year Syrian Civil War. The YPG has been one of the most effective militias fighting the Islamic State (ISIS), while Assad has largely used his forces to contain Syrian rebel forces and kill civilians. Assad does, of course, oppose the creation of an independent Kurdistan carved, in part, out of his country.
Assad enjoys support from Iran and Russia, while the YPG’s main allies in Syria are the United States and Russia. Both countries have alliances with Turkey and have refused to help fight Ankara in Afrin, however.
Syria’s state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) announced Monday “that popular forces [the Syrian military] are to arrive in the Afrin area soon to support locals in facing the aggression launched by the Turkish regime on the area since January 20th.”
“The Turkish regime has been waging a barbaric aggression on Afrin area for almost a month, using various types of weapons and shells including the internationally-prohibited chlorine gas, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians and destroying infrastructure, properties, and historical landmarks,” SANA alleged.
The YPG accused the Turkish government of using chemical weapons against them this weekend, a grave violation of international legal norms. The Assad regime has repeatedly used chemical weapons against civilians.
SANA specified that Syrian forces in Afrin would serve to “strengthen the locals’ resilience and resistance against the Turkish aggression which targets infrastructure, public and private properties, and economic and services establishments.”
“We have repeatedly said that Syrian Army has not entered [and] will not enter Afrin. If there is an agreement we will make a statement [on it],” YPG spokesperson Brusk Hasake reportedly told Russia propaganda site Sputnik News. “We are fed up of this news. If Syrian Army enters Afrin we will not hide it from you and the public.”
Yet Rudaw reports sightings of Syrian troops amassing on the road between Afrin and Aleppo, where Assad imposed his military’s control with a brutal campaign partially targeting civilians, indicating that the Syrian military is going into Afrin whether the Kurds want them there or not.
The Turkish government wryly welcomed the presence of Assad forces in Afrin if they were intended to attack and kill the YPG. “If the regime enters Afrin to clear the YPG, then Turkey will not have a problem with it. If it supports YPG, then no force can stop Turkey in clearing the terrorists,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.
Despite the denials, some politicians associated with the YPG had confirmed this month that it reached out to Damascus hoping for some support in the face of the Turkish assault.
Speaking to the Agence France-Presse (AFP), one Kurdish politician made the argument that if Assad did not accept Kurdish sovereignty in Afrin, he was obligated to protect the region from a Turkish invasion.
“We tried to convince them [Assad troops], via the Russians, to at least protect the borders, to take a position,” Kurdish politician Aldar Khalil told the AFP. “If they don’t protect the borders, then at least they don’t have the right to block the way for Syrian patriots who are protecting these borders, regardless of other domestic issues.”
The YPG officially denied reports at the time that Damascus had already been providing “humanitarian support,” yet an anonymous YPG source told Kurdistan 24 that the Kurds had begun negotiating with Damascus last week.
The Turkish government considers the YPG indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist U.S.-designated terrorist group, despite the fact that the YPG cooperates with the United States, has welcomed American volunteers, and played a key role in the liberation of Raqqa, the “capital” of the Islamic State “caliphate.” In announcing Operation Olive Branch, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the YPG a “horde of murderers” and vowed to “choke” it out of existence. He has since threatened to attack American troops with an “Ottoman slap” and conquer all of northern Syria from Afrin to the Iraqi border.
Erdogan said in 2016, however, that any Turkish presence in Syria would exclusively target Assad.
“Why did we enter? … We entered there to end the rule of the tyrant al-Assad who terrorizes with state terror,” he said that year. “Not for any other reason.”
The Trump administration has repeatedly claimed Turkey has “legitimate security interests” in attacking its allies and sent Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Ankara last week for reconciliation talks with Erdogan.