Bashar al-Assad’s soldiers have entered Afrin in support of the Kurdish resistance against the Turkish “Operation Olive Branch.” Rumors of an agreement between the Kurdish YPG/YPJ defense units and the government in Damascus were already circulating on Sunday, with Reuters quoting a Rojava official, Badran Jia Kurd. Monday morning, Mahmoud Nouri, spokesman for the YPG, said the soldiers’ arrival to the district was imminent.
After an initial silence, there came the confirmation from the Syrian state-run TV station, SANA: the deployment of pro-government forces to the border would not require a few days, as Mahmoud Nouri had suggested, but just “a few hours.”
“The popular forces will arrive in Afrin in the coming hours to support the resistance of their people in facing down the aggression that the forces of the Turkish regime have launched in the region,” the TV announcement said. “[The agreement] comes in the context of giving support to the residents and defending the territorial unity and sovereignty of Syria.”
An agreement had been expected. The Kurdish forces had immediately called for the intervention of the government, which until a few days ago preferred to avoid the issue, even though Assad’s troops present in the north of Syria had been allowing Kurdish fighters from the eastern districts to pass through to Afrin for weeks.
Now the deal has been made concrete: according to Firat News, close to the YPG, it provides for a no-fly zone enforced by the Syrian air force. This agreement blows up the shaky balance of alliances, real or feigned, in the regional war that is being fought in Syria. For the first time, pro-Assad fighters will find themselves face to face with the Turks, protagonists of a confrontation that could change the face of the conflict.
Perhaps that is why the fight will be an “indirect” one: SANA did not specify the exact allegiance of the pro-Assad forces, but the term “popular forces” refers to militias supporting the government in Damascus, and not the national army. Those fighting on the ground, then, would be the pro-government and pro-opposition forces, the latter being, in effect, Turkey’s boots on the ground: although the Turks are directly present with tanks and special forces, for this anti-Kurdish operation President Erdogan has chosen to send to the frontlines the Salafis of Ahrar al-Sham , the “moderates” of the Free Syrian Army, and the ex-Al-Qaeda supporters of the Al-Nusra Front.
These are the same groups that Damascus is fighting in Idlib, the northwestern province controlled by jihadists of various stripes, and which from December has been the object of a broad counteroffensive by the Syrian government in alliance with the Russians (just as in Eastern Ghouta, where new government bombing raids are said to have killed more than 70 people Monday).
It is impossible to remove Russia from the equation: after the launch of “Operation Olive Branch,” Moscow has seen fit to withdraw their observers and soldiers from the western edge of Syria, to prevent more or less direct clashes, which would definitely have been embarrassing, almost as much as those that might occur in Manbij between the Turks and US marines. On Monday, President Putin spoke with Erdogan by telephone: according to the Hurriyet daily newspaper, citing sources close to the Turkish presidency, Erdogan threatened there would be “consequences” if Assad advanced into Afrin.
His ministers put out threatening statements yesterday. First to react was Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, who spoke as if Rojava was Turkish territory: “If the regime are entering the region to chase away the PKK and PYD [the Kurdish-Syrian Democratic Union Party – n.ed.], there are no problems. But if they are going to defend the YPG, nothing and no one will stop the Turkish soldiers.”
There was also a reaction in terms of military activity: The raids on the Kurdish district intensified, with bombs falling on the center of Afrin, the districts of Jinderese and Mabata and the Rubar refugee camp. One house was destroyed in Basute, leading to one dead and eight wounded.
If we think logically, the Syrian government’s intervention is irreproachable: Turkey launched a massive bombing campaign in Syria without asking for any permission from Damascus (and, indeed, threatening to go as far as the far east of Syria, to the border with Iraq), and, moreover, employing thousands of militants of groups that the government is fighting just a little further south, in jihadist-ridden Idlib.
We must also consider the semi-indifference that has so far characterized the relations between Rojava and the central Syrian government: there were no direct clashes between them, except in very rare cases, and Damascus had recently promised to negotiate with the Rojava districts regarding their future autonomy.
But logic is a rare commodity in Syria, especially in light of the negotiating process that Russia has set up between Astana and Sochi, with the Turks as partners, leading to an indirect Ankara-Damascus axis. In the background looms the unclear role being played by the US, physically present in Manbij together with the SDF and giving weapons to the Kurds, but at the same time careful to not get involved in the district that is being attacked.
It is an ambiguous picture, which seems to foretell either the possible isolation of Turkey, which would again be defeated on the battlefield for regional hegemony, or, indeed, a strategic move by Damascus to retake control of the north of Syria.