- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Ankara is vowing to take out Syrian government and pro-regime forces sent into the embattled city of Afrin to aid Syrian Kurds defending the enclave against the ongoing Turkish offensive there.

Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, told reporters in Ankara Wednesday that any member of the Syrian armed forces or associated paramilitary groups in Afrin will be considered “legitimate targets” by Turkish forces.

“Every step taken in support for the YPG terror organisation would mean [any forces intervening on the Kurdish militants’ side] are on the same level as terror organizations,” he said, referring to the Syrian Kurds allied with Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG. “And for us, that would make them legitimate targets.”

The threats come amid reports that Syrian President Bashar Assad reached a deal with the YPG and Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) to send men and reinforcements to blunt the Turkish incursion, dubbed Operation Olive Branch. Syrian fighters began ferrying into the besieged city this weekend, local reports claim.

Large elements of the YPG or PYD make up the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the U.S.-backed confederation of Arab and Kurdish paramilitaries who flushed the Islamic State from its Syrian capital of Raqqa last year. U.S. forces continue to train and equip SDF fighters — including those tied to the YPG and PYD — in Manbij as the anti-Islamic State offensive continues in Syria.

Turkey has threatened to expand its Afrin operations westward, toward U.S. lines in Manbij, saying American military advisers could be targeted as part of that expanded offensive. In response, U.S. commanders on the ground in Syria and in the Pentagon have repeatedly stated that Washington has no intention of withdrawing from Manbij, or the larger Euphrates River Valley.

Over the weekend, Turkish troops reportedly fired on the advancing Syrian convoy as it approached the city limits. Eyewitnesses claim two pro-regime fighters were killed and five wounded in the melee.

The deal reached between Syrian Kurds and Damascus was carried out with Russia’s blessing. Moscow and Iran have been the Assad regime’s only international allies during the country’s ongoing civil war.

Days before the Turkish offensive in northwest Syria, Moscow offered to close the airspace to Turkish airstrikes in exchange for local leaders acquiescing Afrin and its surrounding areas to regime control, Sinam Mohamad of the Democratic Administration of Northern Syria told reporters in Washington late last month.

After local leaders refused the Russian offer, Turkey began its initial round of aerial bombardments and heavy artillery strikes against PYD positions inside Afrin, she said.

Neither the White House nor the Pentagon have yet to comment on the reported pact, which was reached shortly after Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson visited Turkey to help quell growing animosity between the two NATO allies.

During the visit, Mr. Tillerson reemphasized the necessity of U.S.-Turkish relations as the Middle East looks to recover from the war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

“The relationship is too important, it’s too valuable to NATO and our NATO allies … for us not to do anything other than concentrate on how are we going forward,” Mr. Tillerson said during a press conference with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.

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