The Syrian government’s SANA news outlet reports that unspecified “popular forces” supporting dictator Bashar al-Assad have arrived in the northern province of Afrin, currently under invasion by the Turkish military.
Turkey invaded Afrin, part of the Syrian Kurdish region known as Rojava, to eradicate the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), a militia that has supported American efforts against the Islamic State and fought to free Raqqa, the terrorist group’s “capital” city, last year. The United States has refused to help the YPG, leading to Kurdish officials suggesting that, if Assad does not recognize Kurdish sovereignty, he has a responsibility to secure Afrin. Assad responded with a deployment of “popular forces” to the area.
“Over the past two days, groups of popular forces arrived in Afrin to support the locals against Daesh (ISIS) terrorists and the continued aggression of the Turkish regime,” the government-sponsored SANA reported on Thursday. The Assad-controlled outlet naturally reported that locals in Afrin city were happy to “welcome the popular forces’ engagement in confronting the Turkish regime’s continued aggression.”
“Popular forces” — which some reports from Kurdish sources indicate are pro-Iranian Shiite militia fighters — began arriving in Afrin on Tuesday, shortly after SANA reported that Assad had reached a deal to defend the Kurds against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “Operation Olive Branch.” A YPG spokesman confirmed that day that the Kurds expected these forces to “take up positions on the borders and participate in defending the territorial unity of Syria and its borders.”
The YPG does not believe that these troops are members of the official Syrian army, which is deeply embroiled in attacks on civilians in the outskirts of Damascus, where the few remaining anti-Assad rebel forces remain. Yeni Safak, a stridently pro-Erdogan Turkish newspaper, claims the “popular forces” are Iran-backed units being deployed by Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force. While there is no confirmation for this claim, rumors placed Soleimani in an advisory role for the Iraqi equivalent of these forces, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU/PMF).
Erdogan’s officials claimed this week that the Russian government directly intervened to persuade Assad not to send Syrian army forces to attack the Turks. Russia enjoys alliances with Assad, Iran, Turkey, and the YPG.
Assad did deploy the “popular forces” north from Damascus to Afrin anyway, and Turkish troops attacked, according to SANA. Turkish attempts to block the fighters from reaching Afrin failed, however.
Turkish officials have insisted that their troops will attack Assad’s forces if they defend the YPG. “It doesn’t matter who makes such an attempt, there will be serious consequences,” Erdogan spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told reporters on Wednesday, noting that Erdogan and Assad — who routinely refer to each other as “terrorists” — are not communicating with each other on this conflict.
Echoing this talking point, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said on Thursday, “Whoever gets into a fight against the Turkish Armed Forces together with these terrorists will become a target for us.” He also specifically threatened an attack on U.S. forces if they reconsider and come to the aid of their Kurdish allies.
The Turkish government claims it has killed over 1,800 “terrorists” in Afrin, counting YPG forces as terrorists and falsely alleging that Islamic State elements remain in Afrin. Ankara has repeatedly denied killing civilians, most recently on Thursday. “To date, no civilians have died or even been hurt in Turkish Armed Forces operations,” Deputy Prime Minister Bozdag told the state-run Anadolu news agency.
The Turkish government considers the YPG indistinguishable from the Marxist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. The PKK is active in Turkish and has been responsible for a series of attacks promoting the establishment of an independently Kurdistan out of parts of southern Turkey. The YPG fights, in part, for the liberation of Rojava from Syrian rule. The United States rejects this equivalence and the State Department recently suggested that sanctions against Turkey for attacking the YPG, and dislodging thousands of Afrin civilians, are “on the table.”
Turkey and the United States are NATO allies, complicating any potential conflict between the two. The United States has also repeatedly called for Assad, now stepping in to help American allies on the ground, to step down. The YPG and Syrian government forces have largely avoided each other throughout the Syrian Civil War.