Syrian-Turkish Standoff Nears as pro-Assad Forces Enter Kurdish-held Enclave

Erdogan says pro-Assad forces turned back after Turkish artillery fire

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighters are seen near the city of Afrin, Syria, February 19, 2018.
\ KHALIL ASHAWI/ REUTERS

A convoy of Pro-Syrian government forces entering Syria's northwestern Afrin region turned back after Turkish artillery fire, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday, adding that the convoy was made up of "terrorists" acting independently. 

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Erdogan said he had previously reached an agreement on the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rohani, and warned that the group, which he said were Shi'ite militias, would pay "a heavy price." 

"Unfortunately, these kind of terror organisations take wrong steps with the decisions they take. It is not possible for us to allow this. They will pay a heavy price," Erdogan told a news conference.  

Earlier, Syrian state TV reported that Turkish troops shelled the entrance of Afrin shortly after scores of pro-government fighters entered the area. The TV report showed shells falling in an area where journalists gathered, forcing some of them to flee the area.

Minutes before the shelling, about 20 vehicles with heavy machine guns mounted on them were seen entering the area as part of an agreement between the government and the main Kurdish militia in Syria known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG.

The fighters, wearing camouflage fatigues, waved weapons and Syrian flags from their vehicles as they crossed through a checkpoint that bore the insignia of a Kurdish security force. 

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"One Syria, one Syria!" some of them chanted. 

"We have come to tell our people in Afrin that we are one," said a fighter interviewed on state television, referring to the government stance that Syria must remain one country and internal partitions caused by the war must be eradicated. 

Turkey has threatened Syrian troops not to help YPG fighters, warning that it will fight its backers.

Ankara considers the YPG a "terrorist group" linked to the Kurdish insurgency within Turkey's borders. On January 20, it launched a major air and ground offensive, pounding the enclave with airstrikes and artillery on a daily basis.

On Sunday, a Kurdish political official said Damascus had agreed to send Syrian troops into Afrin to help fend off the month-old offensive by Turkey and allied Syrian insurgents. 

The Syrian government and the YPG have mostly avoided direct conflict during the war, but they espouse very different visions for Syria's future. Each controls more ground than any other side in the conflict.