“Hundreds” of Iranian-allied Shiite troops loyal to the Russian-backed dictator Bashar al-Assad joined the U.S.-allied Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin Tuesday to defend the territorial unity of Syria and its borders, the Kurds in the region reportedly confirmed.
The pro-Assad troops arrived in Afrin on Tuesday, soon after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu defiantly warned that pro-Damascus forces would face “serious consequences” for entering the Afrin region to assist Kurdish fighters to repel the Turkish offensive, dubbed Operation Olive Branch.
The pro-Assad troops will “take up positions on the borders and participate in defending the territorial unity of Syria and its borders,” Nouri Mahmoud, a spokesman for the YPG, confirmed in a statement, reports Rudaw.
Citing the YPG, Reuters reports that the Syrian “forces that arrived—which included combatants allied to Assad but not Syrian army troops—will deploy near the Turkish border.”
An unnamed pro-Assad commander indicated to Reuters that the fighters who entered the Afrin fight are Iran-allied Shiite militiamen.
“Any step there aimed at supporting the … YPG terrorist organization will mean they … become legitimate targets for us,” Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, cautioned on Wednesday, noting that Ankara was not in direct negotiations with Damascus.
Erdogan claims he convinced Russia to prevent Assad from deploying Syrian government troops, so the Syrian dictator sent the Iranian Shiite fighters to Afrin instead.
“The Russians are the ones who decided this game,” Kurdish politician Fawza Youssef told Reuters.
“The Russians have been playing it like this for a while. … They pressure the Turks with the Kurdish card (and vice versa),” noted Youssef, a senior member of the Kurdish-led autonomous authority in north Syria.
Assad has been receiving assistance from Russian- and Iran-recruited Shiite militiamen, including Hezbollah, since the conflict in Syria began in 2011.
Turkey and the anti-Assad Syrian opposition forces it has been backing throughout the Syrian conflict attempted to push out the pro-Assad paramilitary fighters with artillery fire, reports Reuters.
Although a spokesman for Turkish President Erdogan’s claimed Wednesday that Ankara had forced the Syrian troops “in a convoy of some 40-50 vehicles” to retreat, a YPG official and a pro-Assad military commander denied the allegations.
Referring to the forces loyal to Assad arriving in Afrin, Reuters adds, “Their arrival raises the specter of wider escalation on Syria’s northern battlefront, where the Syrian army, allied Iran-linked militias, Kurdish forces, rebels, Turkish troops, and Russian and American forces are all contending.”
Turkey has been attacking Kurdish-held Afrin region since January 20 to drive out the Kurds, prompting the YPG, the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) that controls swathes of northern Syria to defend their homeland.
Turkey has long considered the YPG to be an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which both Washington and Ankara have deemed a terrorist group.
America’s support for the YPG in their fight against Islamic State (ISIS) has strained the relationship between NATO allies Turkey and the United States, pushing Ankara closer to Russia.con
Reuters learned from a pro-Assad commander that Russia had intervened to “delay the entry” of Syrian army troops, and so allied Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen with heavy weaponry went instead.
Russia has been backing Assad throughout the Syrian conflict that began in 2011. Meanwhile, Turkey has been lending support to rebel groups seeking to remove Assad from power.