Pro-Syrian government forces that attempted to enter the Kurdish-held border enclave of Afrin on Tuesday retreated before reaching the city following warning shelling from Turkish units in the area, the Anadolu news agency reported, relying on sources on the ground.
The pro-regime groups departed the Nubl-al-Zahraa region, in southern Afrin, at around 5:00 p.m. with the aim of supporting Kurdish groups fighting against Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, an incursion into Afrin launched last month.
The Iran-backed pro-Assad militias tried to advance into the city with a convoy of 20 vehicles but retreated to regime-controlled territory after the Turkish military started shelling the convoy as a warning.
The withdrawal of the pro-Bashar al-Assad groups came when they were about 10 kilometers (about 6 miles) from Afrin in northwestern Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan confirmed Tuesday that a pro-regime group attempting to enter Syria’s Afrin area was pushed back by Turkish artillery shelling.
Speaking at a press conference with his Macedonian counterpart, Gjorge Ivanov, in Ankara, Erdoğan said Turkey had already agreed with Russia and Iran regarding Afrin and that the pro-regime group was acting independently.
“Unfortunately, these kinds of terror organizations take wrong steps with the decisions they take. It is not possible for us to allow this. They will pay a heavy price,” Erdoğan said.
A senior Kurdish official said over the weekend that a deal had been struck for the Syrian army to enter Afrin and fight back against the Turks. Syrian state news agency SANA on Monday reported that the pro-government militia would enter Afrin “within hours.”
Turkish troops and pro-Turkish Syrian rebels have been fighting Kurdish militia in Afrin for the past month, and Turkey has warned Syrian forces against intervening in support of the Kurds.
Erdoğan said earlier on Tuesday that Turkey had thwarted a possible deployment of Syrian government troops into the northwest Afrin region after talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The [Syrian deployment] was seriously stopped yesterday… It was stopped,” Erdoğan told reporters following a speech at a Justice and Development Party (AKP) parliamentary group meeting in Ankara.
When asked if the deployment was stopped after talks with Putin, Erdoğan said, “Yes, it was stopped after those talks.”
Erdoğan on Monday spoke to both Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about Syria, Ankara’s government spokesman said. The three countries also agreed that their foreign ministers would meet in Moscow on March 14, Reuters reported.
The Turkish military and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters on Jan. 20 launched the incursion called Operation Olive Branch in Afrin against the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey sees as the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Kurds have run their own affairs in Afrin since Syrian forces withdrew in 2012 to concentrate on fighting rebels elsewhere in the country.
Syria’s government has called the Turkish offensive on Afrin a “blatant attack” on its sovereignty.