BEIRUT/February 19, 2018 (AP)(STL.News) —Turkey threatened on Monday to hit back at Syrian pro-government troops if they deploy in an enclave in northern Syria to protect a Kurdish militia that Ankara is battling there.
The warning by the Turkish foreign minister came shortly after Syrian state media said pro-government forces will begin entering the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin in the country’s northwest “within hours,” after reaching an agreement with the Kurdish militia in control of the region.
The official SANA news agency said the forces will deploy in Afrin to “bolster” local forces in confronting Turkish “aggression,” suggesting the Syrian government and Kurdish fighters have struck a deal under which the government forces would help repel an ongoing Turkish offensive on the enclave.
The agreement may prompt Turkey to pull out and end a month-long air and ground offensive that aims to oust the Syrian Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, from Afrin. Ankara considers the YPG a “terrorist group” linked to its own Kurdish insurgency within Turkey’s borders.
Turkey’s foreign minister promptly issued the warning, saying that his country is ready to battle Syrian government troops if they enter Afrin to protect the Kurdish fighters.
Speaking in the Jordanian capital of Amman, Mevlut Cavusoglu added that “if the regime is entering to protect the YPG, then no one can stop us, stop Turkey or the Turkish soldiers.”
On the other hand, he said that Ankara would have no problem if Syrian government forces enter Afrin to clear the area from YPG fighters.
The announcements came as violence continued in Afrin.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Syria’s state media reported that Turkish troops pounded villages in the enclave with artillery shells.
SANA gave no further details about the deployment of the troops, known as “popular forces,” to the area. The Syrian government withdrew from much of the border area with Turkey in 2012 and maintains no presence in Afrin.
“The popular forces joining the resistance against Turkish occupation in Afrin comes in the framework of supporting residents as well as defending Syria and its sovereignty,” SANA said, adding that the deployment aims to “frustrate attempts by (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan’s regime and its mercenaries of terrorist organizations to occupy the area,” referring to Turkish-backed Syrian insurgents.
A Syrian Kurdish official told The Associated Press that Syrian troops will enter Afrin form the Shiite villages of Nubul and Zahraa through the Ziyara crossing that links government-held parts of the country with those held by the YPG.
“The army will deploy in several border areas in coordination with the People’s Protection Units and the Syrian Democratic force,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to reveal details of the agreement. “The army will set up military positions in the border area and the agreement is that the Syrian army and the YPG will defense Syria together.”
He added that the agreement so far does not include anything about running the administration affairs in Afrin, saying this will be discussed in the future.
The move could be a first step toward restoring Syrian government presence along the border with Turkey, which has been an active supporter of President Bashar Assad’s opponents and sponsored rebels fighting to oust him throughout the seven-year Syrian civil war.
However, Turkey in recent years has focused more on limiting expanding Kurdish influence along its borders.
Turkey’s private Haberturk newspaper said the Syrian government forces were expected to deploy at 52 locations within the week and to four locations in the next two days. The paper claimed that under the deal, the YPG had agreed to hand over heavy weapons it holds.
The paper did not provide a source for the report.
The Kurdish official told the AP that the reports about the YPG handing over their weapons are “totally untrue.”
Laub reported from Amman, Jordan. Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.