Pro-Syrian government militia move into Kurdish-controlled Afrin despite Turkish warnings

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20.02.2018

Pro-Syrian militia move into Kurdish-Afrin

The deployment of pro-Syrian government forces raises the prospect of clashes with Turkish forces in Afrin. Soon after the convoy arrived, Syrian state media reported that Turkey had targeted them with shellfire.

Pro-government Syrian forces moved into the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin on Tuesday despite warnings from Turkey, which halted the irregular troops' advance with artillery fire.

Conflicts | 21.03.2018

Convoys of pro-Syrian government militia members were seen in video passing a Kurdish YPG militia checkpoint into Afrin.

"The Syrian government has responded to the call of the duty and sent military units on this day ... to deploy along the border and take part in defending the unity of Syria's territory and borders," YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud said in a statement.

Read more: Turkey's military offensive against Kurdish-held Afrin: What you need to know

Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said hundreds of pro-Syrian government forces had entered Afrin.

The pro-government troops appeared to largely consist of National Defense Forces (NDF) units, a paramilitary militia organized by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

On Monday, state media and Kurdish sources said the two sides were negotiating for pro-regime troops to help defend against the Turkish military and its rebel allies.

Read more: Erdogan: Turkish army will besiege Afrin within days 

The troop movements raised the prospect of direct clashes between the Syrian regime and Turkey, which alongside rebel allies launched an offensive against the Kurdish-held enclave in northwestern Syria a month ago.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said artillery fire pushed back "Shiite militia" and "the case is closed for now."

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However, it was unclear if the pro-Syrian government militia forces had fully pulled back.  The YPG denied this.

Details of a deal between the Assad regime and Kurds are scant.  Kurdish sources have said that any deal would be limited to pro-Syrian government forces moving into border areas, essentially acting as buffer to an expanded Turkish offensive in Afrin.

Read more: Who are the Kurds?

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

War with no end

Syria has been engulfed in a devastating civil war since 2011 after Syrian President Bashar Assad lost control over large parts of the country to multiple revolutionary groups. The conflict has since drawn in foreign powers and brought misery and death to Syrians.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The dictator

Syria's army, officially known as the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), is loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is fighting to restore the president's rule over the entire country. The SAA has been fighting alongside a number of pro-Assad militias such as the National Defense Force and has cooperated with military advisors from Russia and Iran, which back Assad.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The northern watchman

Turkey, which is also part of the US-led coalition against IS, has actively supported rebels opposed to Assad. It has a tense relationship with its American allies over US cooperation with Kurdish fighters, who Ankara says are linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighting in Turkey. The Turkish military has intervened alongside rebels in northern Aleppo, Afrin and Idlib province.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The eastern guardian

The Kremlin has proven to be a powerful friend to Assad. Russian air power and ground troops officially joined the fight in September 2015 after years of supplying the Syrian army. Moscow has come under fire from the international community for the high number of civilian casualties during its airstrikes. However, Russia's intervention turned the tide in war in favor of Assad.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The western allies

A US-led coalition of more than 50 countries, including Germany, began targeting IS and other terrorist targets with airstrikes in late 2014. The anti-IS coalition has dealt major setbacks to the militant group. The US has more than a thousand special forces in the country backing the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The rebels

The Free Syrian Army grew out of protests against the Assad regime that eventually turned violent. Along with other non-jihadist rebel groups, it seeks the ouster of President Assad and democratic elections. After suffering a number of defeats, many of its members defected to hardline militant groups. It garnered some support from the US and Turkey, but its strength has been greatly diminished.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The resistance

Fighting between Syrian Kurds and Islamists has become its own conflict. The US-led coalition against the "Islamic State" has backed the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias. The Kurdish YPG militia is the main component of the SDF. The Kurds have had a tacit understanding with Assad.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The new jihadists

"Islamic State" (IS) took advantage of regional chaos to capture vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Seeking to establish its own "caliphate," IS has become infamous for its fundamentalist brand of Islam and its mass atrocities. IS is on the brink of defeat after the US and Russia led separate military campaigns against the militant group.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The old jihadists

IS is not the only terrorist group that has ravaged Syria. A number of jihadist militant groups are fighting in the conflict, warring against various rebel factions and the Assad regime. One of the main jihadist factions is Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which controls most of Idlib province and has ties with al-Qaeda.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The Persian shadow

Iran has supported Syria, its only Arab ally, for decades. Eager to maintain its ally, Tehran has provided Damascus with strategic assistance, military training and ground troops when the conflict emerged in 2011. The Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah also supports the Assad regime, fighting alongside Iranian forces and paramilitary groups in the country.

Any agreement between the Kurds and the Syrian government further complicates the multi-sided conflict in northern Syria involving Kurdish forces, the Syrian government, rebel factions, Turkey, the United States, Iran and Russia.

In a complicated web of rivalries and alliances, the deal in Afrin means that Iran-backed pro-regime militia are cooperating with US-backed Syrian Kurds against NATO member Turkey and its rebel allies. 

Turkey has warned that it will hit back at pro-Syrian government forces if they moved into Afrin, which is controlled by the YPG militia. Ankara considers the YPG to be a terrorist organization tied to Kurdish rebels fighting a three-decade insurgency in Turkey.

Earlier on Tuesday, Erdogan said Russia had intervened to block Damascus from entering Afrin and that the Turkish military would quickly expand its assault on Afrin.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged Turkey to enter into direct negotiations with the Syrian regime, something that would be hard for Ankara to stomach.

"We recognize Turkey's concerns regarding the current situation in Syria, and we recognize the Kurds' aspirations," Lavrov said. "I am confident that Turkey's lawful interests of security provision can be implemented and satisfied through direct dialogue with Syria's government."

Read more: Syrian conflict: Where does the Assad regime stand on the Afrin offensive?

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00:42 mins.
Web-videos | 19.02.2018

Mass funeral of Kurdish fighters killed in clashes

Iran and Russia are key backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Turkey has been one of the main backers of rebels seeking to oust Assad. But over the past two years, Ankara has focused on thwarting Syrian Kurdish gains and cooperated with Tehran and Moscow to try to end a civil war now in its seventh year.

The Syrian Kurds have had a tacit relationship with Damascus since it withdrew forces from parts of northern Syria in 2012 to focus on fighting rebels seeking to oust the Assad regime.

Further east, the YPG militia is a key component of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which controls around 25 percent of Syrian territory after pushing back the "Islamic State" (IS) over the past three years.

Washington's support of the SDF has been a major source of tensions between the United States and Turkey. 

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