Syrian troops deployed in Afrin, locals confirm

Syrian regime troops have successfully entered the embattled region of Afrin in northwestern Syria, Kurdish military officials said.

The arrival of the soldiers came after days of conflicting reports about an agreement between the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Syrian government to help secure the region against a Turkish offensive.

“The Syrian government has answered our calls and sent military units today to be positioned on the borders and to participate in defending the territorial integrity of Syria,” Nuri Mahmoud, the official spokesman of the YPG, said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Our units had asked the Syrian government and its military to do their duty in defending Afrin and protecting Syrian borders from this brutal invasion,” he added, referring to the Turkish-led offensive that began on Jan 20.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said earlier on Tuesday that an attempt by "terrorists" to enter Afrin had failed after Turkey repelled the attempt with artillery fire. Militants will pay a heavy price if they attempt to do so again, he added.

Turkey entered Afrin last month to confront the YPG, which it says is indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a group that has fought a three-decade war for autonomy from Turkey at the cost of about 40,000 lives, most of them Kurdish. The YPG, however, is a key ally of the United States in its fight against Islamic State (ISIS) and the incursion has ratcheted up tensions between the two NATO allies.

Syrian army units and allied militias – including Lebanese Hezbollah – have entered parts of the Kurdish enclave, local sources confirmed.

“The regime [troops] have indeed entered the vicinity of Afrin canton, coming from Nubl and Zahra,” Shemdin Efrini, an Afrin-based reporter, told Ahval.   

Nubl and Zahra are two regime-held Shiite villages located about 25 kilometers southeast of Afrin.

“There are also a number of pro-Assad militias such as Hezbollah and the Syrian Popular Forces,” Efrini said.

It’s not clear yet whether Syrian government forces will enter the center of Afrin city and local officials refused to comment on the subject.  

“We don’t want to talk about this right now,” Bahjat Abdo, head of the Defense Commission in the Afrin Canton, told Ahval.

“All I want to say at this point is that fighting is ongoing. The Turkish army hasn’t advanced despite using airstrikes and artillery against our forces,” he added.

Erdogan also said on Tuesday that Turkey will lay siege to Afrin in the coming days, adding that operations would continue in Syria until every terrorist is dead.

Other Kurdish military officials said that Syrian troops will be stationed largely on the border with Turkey.

“Our [YPG] forces are already based in Afrin, so Syrian soldiers will be on the border between us and Turkey,” said Brusk Heseke, a YPG spokesman.

Syrian state TV released a video showing Syrian government soldiers and paramilitary fighters crossing into Afrin and chanting “Syria is one.”

The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) said that Syrian forces were targeted by the Turkish military as soon as they entered Afrin Tuesday afternoon.

Thirty-two days into Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” against the Kurdish YPG in Afrin, many local residents are expressing a strong desire to secure an end to the battle that has had a major impact on their lives.

“People are caught in between," local journalist Ayende Koran told Ahval. “Both the Syrian and Turkish militaries are bad for them, but they view the Syrian military as the lesser of two evils. They just want this to end.”

The YPG said Tuesday that clashes between the Turkish army, its Syrian rebel allies, and YPG fighters were ongoing on at least five fronts including Shiya, Sharra, Mabata, Bulbuleh and Rajo.