Turkey has sent tanks and special forces into Syria to help clear a border town of Islamic State militants, marking the Nato member’s most significant military involvement so far in the conflict.
Hundreds of Syrian opposition fighters were also part of the cross-border incursion to oust the militants from Jarablus, which has been reported by both Turkish state media and Syrian opposition activists. They said the rebels captured Kaklijeh – an IS-held village near Jarablus – with the support of Turkish armoured units. The village is about two miles from the Turkish border.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the military operation aims to prevent threats from “terror” groups, including the Islamic State and a US-backed Syrian Kurdish militia affiliated with Turkey’s outlawed Kurdish rebels. Mr Erdogan said the operation was in response to a string of attacks in Turkey, including a suicide bombing at a wedding party near the border that killed 54 people.
Yesterday’s operation puts Turkey on track for a confrontation with the US-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria, the most effective fighting force against IS in the area.
Turkey is concerned about the growing clout of the group, which it says is linked to Kurdish groups waging an insurgency in southeastern Turkey.
A senior official with Syria’s largest Kurdish group suggested Turkey will pay a price. Saleh Muslim, co-president of the Democratic Union Party or PYD, tweeted that “Turkey is in Syrian Quagmire. Will be defeated, as Daesh will be.”
The latest developments have thrust Jarablus into the spotlight. The town, which lies on the western bank of the Euphrates where it crosses from Turkey into Syria, is one of the last important IS-held towns between Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria. It is located 20 miles from the town of Manbij, liberated from IS by Kurdish-led forces earlier this month.
Taking 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 on both sides of the Euphrates.
Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Syrian Kurdish forces “must as soon as possible cross to the east of the Euphrates.”
“That’s what the United States promised. That was our agreement,” he added. “Otherwise, and I say this clearly, we will do what is necessary.”
The Syrian government denounced the Turkish military incursion and called for an immediate end to what it described as a “blatant violation” of Syrian sovereignty. It said Turkish tanks and armoured vehicles crossed into Syria under the cover of US-led air strikes.
Turkey’s private NTV television, which said that up to 20 tanks crossed the border, earlier yesterday reported that a small number of Turkish special forces had crossed into Syria as part of the operation.
Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim’s office said the whole operation began at 4am local time, with intense Turkish artillery cross-border fire on Jarablus, followed by Turkish warplanes bombing IS targets in the town.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition activist group that monitors the civil war, said Syrian rebels who were massed at the Turkish border crossed into Syria, preceded by Turkish tanks and mine sweepers.
Ahmad al-Khatib, a Syrian opposition activist embedded with the rebels, said some 1,500 opposition fighters were involved.
He said the fighters come from the US-backed Hamza brigade, as well as rebel groups fighting government forces in Aleppo, such as the Nour el-Din el Zinki brigade, the Levant Front, and Failaq al-Sham.