Turkish forces shelled Syrian pro-government militia fighters on Tuesday as they tried to enter the northern canton of Afrin to aid the Kurdish YPG force in its battle against a Turkish incursion.
The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said the shelling had forced the fighters back.
“This evening some pick-ups were proved to be moving to Afrin but then artillery made then retreat and that file is closed now,” he said. “They will pay a heavy price.”
Video footage published on social media showed members of the al-Baqir Brigade, a part of the pro-government National Defence Force, or NDF, travelling to the province:
Turkish army bombed the roads linking Afrin with Nuble/Zahra as a clear message for Assad/Iran. Several reports suggested that the NDF units preparing to enter Afrin are mainly Iran-linked militias from Nuble and Zahra, not Assad regular army due to Russia-Turkey agreement. pic.twitter.com/JSOgStIpFp
The Baqir Brigade said on Facebook it would be leading pro-government forces “against FSA terrorists and Turks” in Afrin, in reference to rebels fighting on Turkey’s behalf.
The move comes in spite of an apparent promise extracted from the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, by his Turkish that there would not be any Syrian army presence in Afrin.
Speaking after a speech in parliament on Tuesday, Erdogan said: “The [Syrian deployment] was seriously stopped yesterday… It was stopped.”
Erdogan on Monday had spoken to his Russian and Iranian counterparts, Putin and Hassan Rouhani, to discuss developments in Syria and Afrin.
“Yes, it was stopped after those talks,” Erdogan said.
Although the NDF is not a part of the main Syrian army, it does receive government weaponry and fights alongside regular forces.
A spokesman for the YPG said the Syrian government had responded to a request for support against the Turkish-backed forces.
“Syrian government responded to invitation and responded to call of duty and sent military units on Tuesday 20 February 2018, to focus on the border and participation in defence of unity of Syrian territory,” said Nuri Mahmoud, in a statement.
Video released following the strike on the troops appeared to indicate that some were retreating in the face of the attacks:
Anadolu Agency, without giving a source, said the forces had turned back some 10km.
Erdogan announced on Tuesday that a Turkish military siege on the northern Syrian town of Afrin was imminent, leading to increased fears that civilians in the densely populated urban centre could be at extreme risk.
“In the coming days quicker actions will be taken to lay siege to Afrin’s city centre,” Erdogan told his party’s MPs in parliament.
Ankara has rejected claims of civilian casualties right from the start despite its full-throttled military offensive. Various NGOs and institutions active in the region, however, have reported civilian casualties throughout.
The announcement of an imminent siege on Afrin’s centre has heightened concerns of increased civilian casualties and deprivation to medical access and other basic needs.
The monitoring group Airwars said the toll of civilian casualties in Afrin as of 14 February stood at 63-99 deaths caused by Turkish fire in Afrin’s vicinity and 14-32 deaths caused by the YPG in Afrin and also in attacks on Turkish soil.
Turkish media reported Turkish forces struck areas around the pro-Assad volunteers as they moved from the towns of Nubl and Zahraa to the YPG-controlled enclave.
The possibility of a confrontation between Turkish army and pro-Iranian militias in Afrin are dangerous high.
Reports of Turkish bombardements near NDF positions are emerging from different sources.