Turkey sends tanks, special forces into Syria to attack Islamic State
After a pre-dawn barrage of heavy artillery and airstrikes, Turkey sent tanks and special forces into Syria on Wednesday to help clear a border town of Islamic State (IS) militants in Ankara’s most significant military involvement so far in the Syria conflict.
Syrian opposition fighters were also part of the cross-border incursion, which was reported by both Turkish state media and Syrian opposition activists.
Turkey said its intention was to clear the town of Jarablus, located right across the border from Turkey, from IS militants. But Turkey is also concerned about the growing power of United States-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, who it says are linked to Kurdish groups waging an insurgency in southeastern Turkey.
Wednesday’s operation puts Turkey on track for a confrontation with the Kurdish fighters in Syria, where the civil war is now in its sixth year.
A senior official with Syria’s largest Kurdish group suggested Turkey will pay the price. Saleh Muslim, the co-president of the Democratic Union Party or PYD, tweeted that “Turkey is in Syrian Quagmire. Will be defeated as Daesh” will be. He used the Arabic language acronym for IS.
The state-run Anadolu Agency, citing unnamed military officials, said tanks crossed into Syria but didn’t provide details. The private NTV television said as many as 20 tanks crossed the border and that clashes were underway. Earlier on Wednesday, NTV said a small number of Turkish special forces had crossed into Syria as part of the operation.
NTV described it as an “intruder mission” meant to carry out “pinpoint operations” against IS to clear Jarablus of the extremists.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s office said the operation, carried out by Turkish and US-backed coalition forces, began at 4am, with Turkish artillery launching intense cross-border fire on Jarablus, followed by Turkish warplanes bombing IS targets in the town, Anadolu said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition activist group that monitors the civil war, said Syrian rebels who were amassed at the Turkish border crossed into Syria, preceded by Turkish tanks and mine sweepers. The Britain-based group didn’t say how many fighters were involved. On Tuesday, it said that around 500 rebels were waiting to cross into Syria.
Turkish state media said rebels entered 3km deep in the direction of Jarablus. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the operation is directed against terror organisations like IS and the PYD, the largest Syrian Kurdish group.
Just a few hours after the operation started, Vice President Joe Biden landed in Ankara for talks that include developments in Syria.
Biden’s visit comes at a difficult time for ties between the two Nato allies – Turkey is demanding that Washington quickly extradite a US-based cleric blamed for orchestrating last month’s failed coup while the United States is asking for evidence against the cleric and that Turkey allow the extradition process to take its course.
Turkish Interior Minister Efkan Ala said the Jarablus operation meant to safeguard Turkey’s security and that Ankara “cannot sit and watch”.
“It is Turkey’s legal right, it is within its authority” to take action, the minister said, adding that Wednesday’s operation was being carried out in coordination with the US-led coalition forces.
Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper quoted Turkish sources as saying Turkish Howitzers and rocket launchers had fired 224 rounds at 63 targets within an hour and 45 minutes, and that the Turkish air raids started just after 6am.
Turkey had declared the border area a “special security zone,” and asked journalists not to try access it, citing safety concerns and threats posed by the IS.
On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlet Cavusoglu’s pledged “every kind” of support for operations against IS along a 100km stretch of Syrian frontier. He said Turkey would support twin operations stretching from the Syrian town of Afrin in the northwest, already controlled by Kurdish forces, to Jarablus, in the central north, held by the Islamic State group.
Jarablus lies on the western bank of the Euphrates River where it crosses from Turkey into Syria and is one of the last important IS-held towns standing between Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria. Taking control of Jarablus and the IS-held town of al-Bab to the south would be a significant step toward linking up border areas under Kurdish control east and west of the Euphrates.
In recent days, Turkey increased security measures on its border with Syria, deploying tanks and armoured personnel carriers. On Tuesday, residents of the Turkish town of Karkamis, across the border from Jarablus, were told to evacuate after three mortars believed to be fired by IS militants landed there, Turkey’s Dogan news agency said.
Turkey has vowed to fight IS militants at home and to “cleanse” the group from its borders after a weekend suicide bombing at a Kurdish wedding in southern Turkey killed at least 54 people, many of them children. Turkish officials have blamed IS for the attack.
Ankara is also concerned about the growing power of US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, who it says are linked to Kurdish groups waging an insurgency in southeastern Turkey.
The Kurdish-led group known as the Syria Democratic Forces, or SDF, recaptured the town of Manbij from IS earlier this month, triggering concerns in Ankara that Kurdish forces would seize the entire border strip with Turkey. The US says it has embedded some 300 special forces with the SDF, and British special forces have also been spotted advising the group.
The Kurds’ outsized role in the Syrian civil war is a source of concern for the Syrian government as well. Fierce clashes erupted between the two sides over control of the northeastern province of Hasakeh last week, and Syrian warplanes bombed Kurdish positions for the first time, prompting the US to scramble its jets to protect American troops in the area.
The Syrian government and the Kurds agreed on a cease-fire Tuesday, six days after the clashes erupted. The Kurdish Hawar News Agency said government forces agreed to withdraw from Hasakeh as part of the truce.
Syrian state media did not mention any withdrawal, saying only that the two sides had agreed to evacuate the wounded and exchange detainees. Government and Kurdish forces have shared control of Hasakeh since the early years of the Syrian war.