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21 Feb, 2018 09:27

Damascus & Ankara dispute whether pro-Syrian govt forces entered Afrin

Forces loyal to Damascus successfully arrived in the Afrin region on Wednesday, Syrian state media says – contradicting statements from Ankara that pro-government troops retreated under Turkish artillery fire.

"New groups of popular forces arriving in Afrin to support the people in confronting... the continued aggression of the Turkish regime," Syrian state news agency SANA reported.

Ankara and Turkish media reports claimed earlier that a pro-Syrian government convoy that attempted to enter Afrin had been forced to retreat after being targeted by Turkish forces.

Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said that an attempt by Syrian forces to enter the region had been stopped, warning that any further such steps would lead to “very serious consequences.”

The statement mirrors previous Turkish media reports on the convoy’s retreat from the northern Kurdish-held region of Afrin, which has been targeted by Ankara as part of its Olive Branch operation against Kurdish militia in Syria. Footage emerged on Tuesday showing a convoy of fighters waving Syrian flags, moving towards the conflict zone.  

“Any step for the benefit of the PYD/PKK in Afrin will be counted as a terrorist act and those responsible will be a legitimate target,” Kalin said during a news conference on Wednesday, as cited by the Turkish Anadolu news agency.

The official said that Ankara and Damascus are not engaged in direct talks, but some messages are being conveyed indirectly via Russia and Iran, which alongside Turkey are the guarantors of the Syrian peace process. However, Turkish intelligence may contact the Syrian authorities under “extraordinary conditions to solve certain issues,” Kalin added.

Turkey’s cross-border operation has been ongoing since January 20 and has “neutralized” a total of 1,780 “terrorists” as of Wednesday, according to the Turkish General Staff. Ankara insists that the offensive is solely aimed at wiping out terrorists, denying allegations that it has targeted civilians.

President Erdogan has repeatedly indicated he would like to expand the offensive and vowed to move into Manbij, where US forces supporting the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are stationed. The issue of US support for Kurdish forces in Syria has become a flashpoint in already-strained relations between Washington and Ankara. At a recent meeting in the Turkish capital, US Secretary Rex Tillerson and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu agreed that bilateral relations were at “a crisis point,” calling the situation around Manbij “a priority” that needed to be addressed urgently.

Damascus has repeatedly condemned the operation as a violation of the country’s sovereignty and accused Ankara of “aggression” against the Syrian people.