More Turkish tanks enter northern Syria to open new front

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 September, 2016, 10:52pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 September, 2016, 10:52pm

Turkey on Saturday sent more tanks into the northern Syrian village of al-Rai to fight Islamic State (IS) extremists, opening a new front after its intervention last month against the group, state media reported.

The tanks crossed into the village from Elbeyli in the Turkish province of Kilis to provide military support to Syrian opposition fighters after ridding northern villages of extremists in its “Euphrates Shield” operation launched on August 24, state-run Anadolu news agency said.

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At least 20 tanks, five armoured personnel carriers, trucks and other armoured vehicles crossed the border after noon, Dogan news agency said.

Turkish Firtina howitzers fired on IS targets as the fresh armoured contingent advanced, Dogan said.

In the last few months, al-Rai has repeatedly changed hands between rebels and IS.

This is Ankara’s most ambitious operation during the five-and-a-half-year Syria conflict, backed by the tanks as well as war planes and special forces providing support to rebels.

The goal is to remove IS from its border and to halt the westward advance of the Kurdish People’s Protection Militia (YPG).

Ahmed Othman, a commander in pro-Turkey rebel group Sultan Murad, told AFP in Beirut that his group was now “working on two fronts in al-Rai, south and east, in order to advance towards the villages recently liberated from IS west of Jarabulus”.

Othman said it was the first phase of their plans. “We want to clear the border area between al-Rai and Jarablus from IS, before advancing south towards al-Bab [the last IS bastion in Aleppo] and Manbij [controlled by pro Kurdish forces].”

After the Kurds’ success in Manbij, they said they wanted to advance and link their other two ‘cantons’ in northern Syria, Kobane and Afrin.

But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that Turkey would not allow the group to create a “terror corridor”.

Ankara sees the YPG as a terror organisation linked to Kurdish separatist rebels in southeast Turkey but the United States has provided training and equipment to the group.

The intervention last month caused another complication in what was already a tangled five-year civil war, with Ankara and Washington supporting different proxy groups seeking to retake territory from IS.

Within 14 hours on August 24, Turkish-backed Syrian rebels recaptured the border town of Jarabulus from IS and continued to make gains in villages nearby.

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According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Turkey-backed rebels also took control of three villages close to the border on Saturday, two on the Jarabulus front and one on the new al-Rai front.

Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said that “they are trying to take control of the border area between Jarabulus and Rai from IS”.

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Turkish strikes on Friday destroyed three buildings used by IS around the villages of Kunduriyah and Arab Izzah, about 30km west of the border town of Jarabulus, the army said in a statement.

The army added the area around Kunduriyah was now controlled by the opposition rebels.

Turkey has also carried out strikes against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) north of the town of Manbij, which the Kurds seized last month.