For the first time since 2013, Islamic State territory is cut off from the outside world
Turkish troops and Syrian rebels on Sunday pushed the Islamic State out of the remaining stretch of territory the group had controlled along the Turkish-Syrian border, severing the militants’ last access to the outside world.
Since 2013, when the group announced its formation, it has had territory bordering a Nato state - Turkey - but the sweep by Turkish forces and rebels fighting under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army has brought that to an end.
According to the official Turkish news agency Anadolu, the Turkish army helped Syrian rebel allies secure border territory stretching from the Syrian towns of Azaz and Jarabulus by ejecting the militants from a string of villages on Sunday.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said his nation’s forces and Syrian rebels had pushed back “terrorist organisations” on its southern border, depriving IS of a key transit point for recruits and supplies.
“From Azaz to Jarabulus, our 91 km border has been completely secured,” Yildirim said during a televised speech while visiting the southeastern city of Diyarbakir.
The Islamic State’s defeat in the border area had been inevitable since Turkey dispatched troops and tanks into Syria on August 24 into Syria to support a long-stalled Syrian rebel offensive there, bringing new muscle to the fight.
But their removal from the border nonetheless marks a symbolically important moment in the war against the militants, who had long relied on their access to Turkey for supplies.
Above all, the border had served as the main conduit for the foreign fighters who have swarmed to participate in the militants’ ambitious experiment in Islamic governance, formalised in 2014 into what the group’s leadership termed a caliphate.
The traffic went both ways, and operatives who participated in attacks in Turkey as well as Paris and Belgium had crossed back across the border from Islamic State territory.
At one point the militants controlled towns along a stretch of the border spanning hundreds of kilometres. But they have been steadily pushed back by the efforts of the different groups working against them, including the Kurds farther east and the Syrian rebels in locations farther west.
The conquest came as US President Barack Obama pledged support for Turkey’s stepped-up role in the fight against the militants after meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Group of 20 summit in China.
The Turkish government has made it clear that its incursion into Syria is also intended to prevent Syrian Kurds from expanding the areas under their control. In comments to reporters after meeting Obama, Erdogan reiterated that the Kurds are as much of a target of Turkey’s Syria intervention as the Islamic State.
“Turkey’s fight against all terror organisations including Daesh and YPG will continue with determination,” he said, referring to the Islamic State and the main Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units.
Erdogan has said Turkey would not allow a “terror corridor” on its southern border.
With Turkey’s rapid success in less than two weeks, his position looks stronger with territory in between the two Kurdish “cantons” of Afrin and Kobane now in the hands of Ankara-backed rebels.
The loss of the Turkish border will also deprive IS of a key transit point for recruits and supplies, though the group continues to hold territory in both Syria and Iraq.
Turkish state media said the advance “cut all the supply and movement routes for terrorist groups from southern Aleppo province to the eastern neighbourhoods and Ramussa.”
The development leaves about 250,000 people living in rebel-controlled parts of the city cut off from the outside world once again, and will raise new fears about a humanitarian crisis in Aleppo.