Turkey warned the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad that it risked a military confrontation with Ankara if it intervened in an ongoing war in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, in a further escalation of tensions that hint at the possible widening of an already complex conflict.
Reports emerged earlier on Monday that pro-Assad militiamen would enter Afrin to assist local Kurdish militias fighting against an incursion by the Turkish military and Syrian rebels affiliated with Ankara.
The reports on Syrian state TV prompted a rebuke by Turkey’s president and foreign minister, who warned that the Assad regime risked a confrontation with the Turkish army.
The Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said in a phone call with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, that Damascus would face consequences if it struck a deal with the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) and said the Afrin operation would continue, CNN Turk reported.
Turkey launched a military campaign in Afrin last month, in an effort to drive out Kurdish militias. The enclave is under the control of the Democratic Union party (PYD) and the YPG, partners of the US-backed coalition against Islamic State.
But Turkey considers the YPG the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), a designated terror group that has fought a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state. A US announcement that it would build a 30,000-strong border force to patrol Syria’s frontiers that included the YPG alarmed Ankara and led to the military campaign, dubbed “Operation Olive Branch” by the Turkish government.
“Now, will the regime enter there? If they do, what for? That is important,” said the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. “If [the] regime enters to clear out the PKK [and] YPG then there is no problem. If they are entering [Afrin] to provide protection to the YPG, then no one can stop Turkey or Turkish soldiers.”
Kurdish officials had asked the Syrian government to intervene and protect the country’s borders against the Turkish advance. But they denied on Monday that a deal had been reached for the regime to enter the enclave in force, though they did not deny that such an agreement might be in the works.
“There is resistance in Afrin and the repetition of the issue of a deal with the regime is covering up what’s happening on the ground,” said Aldar Xelîl, a top PYD official. “We will inform public opinion of any development and if nothing is announced the focus will be on the resistance.”
The possibility of an intervention by the Assad regime has highlighted the complex machinations of the war in Syria. The YPG is allied with Washington, but its branch in Afrin has sought the aid of a government the US officially seeks to overthrow.
Turkey launched the Afrin operation after gaining the approval of Russia, which in turn backs Assad. A direct clash between Turkish and Syrian government forces risks a broader confrontation between the two states’ armies, potentially widening the war.
Observers have long suggested that a deal whereby the Syrian regime enters Afrin and YPG forces redeploy away from the border with Turkey could offer a way out of the military operation, which has dragged on with limited progress on the ground for Turkey and its Syrian proxies.