Risk of Syrian Clash With Turkey Rises as Forces Enter Afrin

Updated on
  • Forces loyal to Syrian regime deploy in Afrin to help Kurds
  • Turkish lira drops as much as 1.3 percent against U.S. dollar
More than 100 killed in Syria attacks

Syrian pro-government fighters entered the border town of Afrin to help Kurdish forces battle a Turkish incursion, state-run media reported, raising the risk of a direct conflict between the two countries.

With Syrian flags plastered on their armored vehicles, the paramilitary forces set out for Afrin to “defend our people against the Turkish aggression,” state-run Syrian television reported. Turkish troops entered Syria on Jan. 20 to expel Kurdish YPG fighters from the border area, viewing them as an extension of the Kurdish PKK separatist group that Turkey has fought for decades.

Pro-Syrian government fighters arrives in Syria’s northern region of Afrin on Feb. 20.

Photographer: George Ourfalian/AFP via Getty Images

The deployment of the Popular Forces militia “increases the risk of a direct Syrian-Turkish confrontation, which adds another layer of complexity to the Syrian crisis,” said Sami Nader, head of the Beirut-based Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs. “This could not have happened without Russia’s consent.”

The militia fighters deployed hours after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said a phone call late Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin helped to stop the advance. Putin is a key backer of the Syrian government. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency denied that Syrian pro-government forces had entered Afrin.

Game Plan

Anthony Skinner, a director at U.K.-based forecasting company Verisk Maplecroft, said “it looks like Syria’s incursion is part of Moscow’s game plan –- to force Damascus and Ankara to negotiate.”

Russia’s chief objectives in Syria are to bolster President Bashar al-Assad and maximize the territory he controls in order to weaken the U.S. and divide NATO, Skinner said.

“Forcing Ankara to negotiate with the Syrian regime would also represent something of a coup for the Kremlin,” he said. “Moscow holds many of the cards and has, on balance, been playing them well.”

Oner Bucukcu, a political analyst at Turkey’s Afyon Kocatepe University, said he expected the escalation to end, probably with Russia’s intervention, “before triggering a direct clash.”

The Turkish lira plunged against the dollar as investors balked at the prospect of a military confrontation. The lira fell as much as 1.3 percent to 3.8083 per dollar, leading losses across emerging markets.

“The Syrian government responded to the call of duty and sent military units on Tuesday and they will be positioned along the border and take part in defending the unity and border of the Syrian territory,” said YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud.

Turkey on Tuesday dispatched about 1,200 more commandos to the Syrian border to reinforce troops near Afrin, the state-run Anadolu Agency said. Erdogan’s government maintains its offensive is aimed solely at expelling YPG militants and that its troops will withdraw once the operation achieves its goals.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE