Turkish operation ousts ISIL from Syrian town of Jarabulus
BEIRUT // Turkish tanks and hundreds of opposition fighters thrust deep inside Syria on Thursday in a lightning operation that ousted ISIL from a key border town within hours.
Operation Euphrates Shield, the most ambitious launched by Ankara in the Syrian conflict, made rapid progress towards Jarabulus, with rebel fighters proclaiming victory 14 hours after it started.
“Jarabulus is completely liberated,” said Ahmad Othman, a commander of the Sultan Mourad rebel group, while another rebel spokesman said ISIL fighters had fled towards Al Bab to the south-west.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is hosting US vice president Joe Biden in Ankara, said Syrian fighters in Jarabulus had “taken it back”.
Turkey’s Anadolu state news agency reported that only one Syrian rebel fighter was killed and 10 wounded. No Turkish forces lost their lives.
The operation began before dawn, with Turkish special forces and tanks entering northern Syria alongside Syrian rebels.
Mr Erdogan said on Thursday that Turkey was confronting “terror groups that constantly threaten our country”, in reference to ISIL and the Democratic Union Party, or PYD – Syria’s most dominant Kurdish faction.
Turkish air and artillery strikes supported the advance, with help from the US-led coalition.
The Syrian regime condemned the move as a breach of sovereignty, saying Turkey was “replacing one type of terrorism with another”.
Jarabulus was ISIL’s last major stronghold and resupply post on the Turkish border.
But while Turkey’s offensive was an attack on ISIL, it was also a strike at US-allied Syrian Kurdish forces marching towards the town.
Ankara regards the PYD and its military wing, the YPG, as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is at war with the Turkish government.
The YPG has been the most effective fighting force in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces coalition against ISIL, helping to capture the strategically important town of Manbij from ISIL this month.
“Turkey is in Syrian quagmire. Will be defeated as Daesh,” the PYD’s leader, Saleh Muslim, said early on Thursday.
Turkey has floated plans for intervention in Syria before, but the push on Jarabulus was its most ambitious move yet. And although the Turkish military’s involvement in the Syrian conflict had previously been limited, Ankara has armed and sheltered rebel groups since its earliest days.
Mr Biden arrived in Ankara on Thursday for talks aimed at calming relations that have grown strained since the failed coup last month and what Turkey perceives as Washington’s reluctance to hand over the alleged instigator, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania.
Turkish leaders have gone so far as to accuse the US of being at war with Turkey.
US cooperation in Turkey’s assault on Jarabulus could help to mend fences, and Washington has reportedly provided planning assistance and drones for the offensive.
“The big surprise here isn’t Turkey moving into Syria, it’s that they’re moving into Syria with American help,” said Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East programme at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars.
The prospect of Turkish and Kurdish forces, both allies of the US but sworn enemies of each other, confronting each other in Turkey presents huge military and diplomatic complications.
Mr Biden on Thursday echoed Turkey’s demands that the Kurds cross back over the Euphrates or risk losing US support.
The push on Jarabulus came days after a suicide bombing, blamed on ISIL, claimed more than 50 lives in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, and one day after Turkey evacuated the town of Karkamis, just across the border from Jarabulus, in response to ISIL shelling.
*with additional reporting from Reuters and AP
Updated: August 25, 2016 04:00 AM