Turkish troops enter Syria and head for Isil-held town
Turkey launched its biggest military operation in Syria yesterday in an effort to force Isil militants away from its border and to deter further advances by Syrian Kurds allied with Turkish separatists.
Airstrikes against jihadist positions around the town of Jarablus, reported by the prime minister's office, were backed by Turkish special forces soldiers on the ground.
The troops were working to help open a corridor for Syrian rebel forces on the border, the CNN-Turk network reported. State-run Anadolu Agency said Turkish tanks had crossed into Syria.
The operation marks a major escalation in Turkey's involvement in Syria, just weeks after it defeated an attempt by sections of the military to topple the government. At the weekend, a suicide bomber said to be linked to Isil killed at least 54 people at a wedding in Turkey's largely Kurdish city of Gaziantep, the latest in a series of attacks.
Syrian Kurds, meanwhile, have been seeking to link their enclaves by wresting control of major towns and villages along the frontier with Turkey from Isil. That has alarmed Ankara, which fears it will embolden the nation's own restive Kurds.
"Turkey is doing the right thing by shelling Isil but for the wrong reason, and that is purely to prevent the Kurds advancing," Dlawer Ala'Aldeen, founding president of the Middle East Research Institute, said by phone from Erbil. The intervention could undermine the war against Isil, he said, as "the Kurds have proven to be the most effective force on the ground".
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war through activists on the ground, said Turkey has deployed tanks and minesweepers to cut the roads leading to Jarablus, a city of 30,000, to make way for Free Syria Army rebels. The FSA took control of Keklice village on the outskirts of Jarablus with support from Turkish armoured units, according to Turkey's state media.
The operation's launch coincides with US Vice President Joe Biden's trip to Turkey to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His visit comes as bilateral ties are strained by Turkish demands that the US extradite the exiled faith leader whom Erdogan blames for instigating the foiled July coup. Erdogan said the offensive targeted both the jihadists and Kurdish fighters, vowing Turkey would "never kneel down." "If needed, Turkey is determined to actively intervene to protect Syria's territorial integrity," Erdogan said. "Turkey won't allow a fait accompli in Syria."
Turkey has been a fierce opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a main supplier of rebels seeking to oust him. But it's equally opposed to the major advances made by Syrian Kurds during the country's more than five-year war. Turkey has been fighting its own Kurdish separatists of the PKK for decades, a conflict that burst back into life last year as peace efforts collapsed.
A senior Obama administration official said that Turkey planned and executed the Jarablus operation after Syrian Kurds in the Manbij area advanced to the north of the city, beyond the agreed-upon front line.
The offensive, which the US had discussed with Turkey, intended to push Isil further inside Syria and create a buffer against Kurds if they attempt to move northward, said the official, who could not be named in line with government policy. The US will provide air support to Turkey if it's planning a major operation against Isil in the area.
Leader of the Kurdish PYD group Saleh Moslem said on Twitter that Turkey is "in the Syrian quagmire" and will be "defeated" along with Isil.
Moslem's remarks show the group's only aim is to carve out a separate homeland instead of fighting against Isil, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said later.