By Leah Cerilli
Pro-Syrian government forces have entered Syria’s Afrin region to assist Kurdish fighters battling against Turkey’s military on February 20, despite Turkey warning Syria not to interfere on February 19. Turkey warned the Syrian government on February 19 not to assist Kurds fighting against Turkish forces in northern Syria, claiming it would be a “disaster” if Syrian troops intervened. This warning was prompted by a media report claiming that Syrian government forces were ready to assist the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in resisting Turkey’s air and ground offensive in Afrin. The report was issued by the Syrian state-run news agency SANA, but was denied by the YPG.
Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Turkish artillery fire pushed a convoy of pro-Syrian government forces out of Afrin. He repeated his warning to Syrians fighting back against the Turkish offensive, stated that Turkey will not allow “such a wrongful step” in the future. Erdogan added that the convoy consisted of a dozen vehicles and turned back 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Afrin following the artillery strikes. Rezan Hedo, a spokesperson for YPG, denied Erdogan’s claim that the convoy turned back due to Turkish artillery fire, but offered no further details. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British nonprofit documenting alleged human rights violations in Syria, reported that one convoy entered Afrin and one convoy turned back from Afrin.
Turkey regards the YPG as terrorists linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The PKK is made up of Kurdish militants fighting against the Turkish government with the goal of seceding from Turkey to create an independent Kurdish state.
The YPG gained a sizable amount of territory in northern Syria due to its battle against ISIS. The Kurds now control a large strip of the Turkey-Syria border, including the enclaves of Manbij and Afrin that they took from ISIS. This is concerning for Turkey, as they do not want the YPG to expand, particularly so close to the Turkish border.
American troops are present in Manbij, supporting the YPG’s battle against ISIS. The offensive in Manbij is a global concern, as it is causing tension between NATO allies Turkey and the United States. It also pits Turkey against the Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran. When reflecting on the possibility of Turkish intervention, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stated he would see any Turkish offensive as a violation of Syrian sovereignty.
Iran, Turkey, and Russia are involved in negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition taking place in Astana, Kazakhstan. Turkey has opposed Kurdish factions from attending these talks. Russia, which currently controls airspace over Afrin, has periodically cooperated with YPG. Russia, Iran, and Turkey also held peace talks in Sochi, Russia, from January 29-30. The talks received acknowledgement, but not support, from the UN and Syrian opposition groups. A proposal to form a constitutional committee was agreed on in Sochi. President Erdogan of Turkey, President Rouhani of Iran, and President Putin recently agreed on February 8 to meet in Istanbul to discuss the Syrian peace process, with an official date to be announced in the next few weeks.