Report: Pro-Assad forces enter Syria’s Afrin, Turkish military responds

File photo.

Turkey is bombarding forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after they entered the enclave of Afrin on Tuesday, CNN Turk television reported citing Syrian state media. Turkish jets struck a convoy of the militia as it entered the disputed area, reported also Cumhuriyet daily. A group of 270 fighters made the incursion, it said.

According to Syrian State News agency SANA, Turkish jets bombed the region where the pro-Assad convoy would pass to enter Afrin. Soldiers loyal to Assad entered Afrin earlier on Tuesday, according to Iran-backed Hezbollah’s media arm and local witnesses. Brusk Haseke, a spokesman for Kurdish militiants in Afrin, confirmed that pro-Assad forces were being deployed but declined to give numbers, Cumhuriyet said.

Iranian semi-state news agency Press TV, published a video, allegedly showing pro-Assad forces are entering Afrin.

Syrian pro-government forces have entered the Kurdish-held border enclave of Afrin, reports say, raising the risk of clashes with Turkey, according to BBC. A senior Kurdish official said over the weekend that a deal had been struck for the Syrian army to enter Afrin and fight back against the Turks. SANA on Monday reported that the pro-government militia would enter Afrin “within hours.”

YPG spokesperson Nouri Mahmoud confirmed the arrival of Syrian forces in an official statement. “The Syrian government responded to our call of duty and sent troops in defense of the unity of Syrian territory.”

Masoud Mohammed, a Kurdistan 24 correspondent in Afrin, said the Syrian fighters, consisting of 50 vehicles, had arrived in the Afrin canton at 4:30 p.m. local time through the Ziyarat border crossing. Mohammed added that despite the Turkish shelling, the Syrian fighters entered Afrin and were deployed to different areas. “Five vehicles reached the center of the city,” he said.

Meanwhile, commenting on the deployment of pro-Syrian government forces, Turkish autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that only 10 fighters were able to enter Afrin, adding that “those who enter the city will pay a heavy price.” Erdoğan also alleged that the Syrian forces were forced to pull back after Turkish artillery shells.

A commander in the pro-Assad military alliance told Reuters the forces had turned back after coming under fire, but then resumed their progress and were now in Afrin.

YPG media adviser Rezan Hedo has also denied Erdoğan’s assertion that the convoy had turned back under Turkish artillery fire, but he gave no details on its size or composition. A Britain-based monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said one convoy had entered Afrin while another turned back.

Turkish troops and pro-Turkish Syrian rebels have been fighting Kurdish militia in Afrin for the past month, and Turkey has warned Syrian forces against intervening in support of the Kurds.

Syrian state TV showed pictures of pro-government paramilitaries preparing to enter Afrin on Tuesday. Media controlled by Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, which supports the Syrian government, and the Syrian Kurdish news agency ANHA said “Popular Forces” militia had crossed into the enclave. It is not yet clear how many fighters have moved in or where they will be deployed.

Erdoğan said earlier on Tuesday that Turkey had thwarted a possible deployment of Syrian government troops into the northwest Afrin region after talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The [Syrian deployment] was seriously stopped yesterday… It was stopped,” Erdoğan told reporters following a speech at a Justice and Development Party (AKP) parliamentary group meeting in Ankara. When asked if the deployment was stopped after talks with Putin, Erdoğan said, “Yes, it was stopped after those talks.”

Erdoğan on Monday spoke to both Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about Syria, Ankara’s government spokesman said. The three countries also agreed that their foreign ministers would meet in Moscow on March 14, Reuters reported.

President Erdoğan on Tuesday said the Turkish army would lay siege to Syria’s Afrin city center in the coming days. Addressing the AKP parliamentary group meeting, Erdoğan claimed Turkish military entered Syria’s Afrin region “to make the region livable and secure.”

Erdoğan urged the “lasting” security of the region was of “utmost” importance for Turkey. “Afrin city center will be besieged in the coming days,” he said. “So that the external aid coming to the city and the region gets cut.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has claimed on Tuesday that anyone who cares about Syria’s border security and integrity prefers Turkey’s presence in the area rather than the terrorist group YPG/PKK. In an interview with the pro-government Turkish news channel 24, Çavuşoğlu said YPG/PKK aims to divide the country and tries to establish a terror corridor.

Speaking about the recent reports of an alleged agreement between YPG/PKK terrorist group and Bashar al-Assad regime on Afrin, Çavuşoğlu said that “It is obvious that they [the regime] did not enter [Afrin] yet, but more terrorists are coming to the region especially from the east.” He claimed the Assad regime was undecided whether it was better for YPG/PKK or Turkey to be there. “YPG wants to divide Syria, he [Assad] knows it. He also says that YPG is a terrorist group.”

Çavuşoğlu noted that if the regime enters Afrin to fight the terrorist group, it does not pose any problem for Turkey. “But if the regime enters there to support and protect YPG/PKK-ISIL, no one can stop the Turkish army.”

Meanwhile, the Turkish military said on Tuesday that a total of 1,715 PYD/PKK and alleged ISIL militants  have been “neutralized” since the beginning of Operation Olive Branch in Syria’s northwestern Afrin region. The military generally uses the term “neutralize” to signify that the targets were either surrendered or killed, or captured.

The groups in northern Syria on Tuesday shelled Turkey’s border province of Hatay, according to a military source. The source said three mortar shells fired from Afrin region of northern Syria landed in Kırıkhan district. No casualties were reported. Turkish military responded to the shells immediately, the source added.

The Turkish military and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters on Jan. 20 launched the incursion called Operation Olive Branch in Afrin against the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey sees as the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Kurds have run their own affairs in Afrin since Syrian forces withdrew in 2012 to concentrate on fighting rebels elsewhere in the country. Syria’s government has called the Turkish offensive on Afrin a “blatant attack” on its sovereignty.

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