A blend of pro-government Syrian forces entered Afrin yesterday. The convoy of pick-up trucks with armed fighters in them that was shown on TV on 19 February leaving Aleppo arrived in Afrin on the morning of the 20th. Lebanese Hizballah posted the images of the arriving fighters, suggesting Hizballah, or at least Shiite, militiamen were sent to Afrin.
Turkish regulars executed an artillery barrage as the pro-government forces arrived, according to Syrian state media. “Turkish regime forces targeted the locations of popular forces with artillery fire as they arrived in the Afrin region.”
Turkey said it fired “warning shots” at Syrian pro-regime forces in Afrin. “Pro-regime terrorist groups that are trying to advance towards Afrin retreated to about 10 kilometers (six miles) from the town because of the warning shots,” the Turkish state news agency Anadolu said.
CNN-TURK and two other mainstream Turkish news outlets reported that the pro-government Syrian forces were driven back, leaving the impression that the Turks prevented their arrival in Afrin. That is disinformation, aka false news. Coming from CNN, it can’t surprise any of this blog’s readers.
Kurds confirmed the reinforcements. In a statement on the 20th, the People’s Defense/Protection Units (YPG) spokesman Nuri Mahmud said in a statement, “The Syrian government responded to the invitation, answered the call of duty and sent military units today, 20 February, to take up positions on the borders, and participate in defending the territorial unity of Syria and its borders.”
A large Hizballah deployment would be significant. Hizballah fighters have proven to be the equal of Islamic State and pro-al-Qaida al Nusra Front fighters, similar to the People’s Defense/Protection Units (YPG). They are tougher fighters than the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army and probably many Turkish army units.
President Erdogan’s minimized the significance of the Syrian deployment. Turkish President Erdogan said the convoy was made up of Shia militiamen acting independently, adding that he had earlier persuaded the Syrian government’s main allies, Russia and Iran, to stop any Syrian troops from being deployed.
“Afrin city center will be besieged in the coming days,” he said. “So that the external aid coming to the city and the region gets cut.” Erdogan said that Turkey would make its red lines clear to everyone.
The Turkish and Turkish-backed forces are in no position to besiege Afrin, mainly, because they do not have it surrounded. The BBC and South Front published situation maps that show the limits of Turkish advances and that the eastern border of Afrin Canton abuts Syrian government-controlled territory.
The Syrian reinforcement of Afrin is a setback for Turkey. It forces Turkish President Erdogan to risk widening a conflict in which his soldiers have performed poorly for over a year. Afrin was supposed to be the first of multiple objectives in Syrian Kurdistan. Afrin might prove to be the undoing of the entire Operation, if Turkish forces cannot capture it.
Erdogan has never explained the significance of calling the operation Olive Branch, but the words appear intended as a message to Syria. The message is that Turkey is doing a security favor for both countries by invading Syrian Kurdistan and cleansing it of Kurds and that Turkey is not starting a general war.
The Russian deputy foreign minister Bogdanov said that Russia is willing to mediate between Turkey and Syria.
The Russian news outlet Kommersant reported on 21 February that the situation is so serious around Afrin that Russia might return the recently promoted commander of the expeditionary force and hinted it might restore forces.
“Russia might replace the commander of its contingent in Syria. The argument between the government of Bashar al-Assad and the Turkish administration over the Afrin situation is increasingly heated, and the Russian center for reconciliation of opposition sides headquartered in Damascus has come under attack.”