Turkey’s ‘Euphrates Shield’ aimed to wipe out IS, stop Kurdish advances

Islamic State’s suicide attack on a Kurdish wedding in Gaziantep this week came as the last straw for Ankara which on Wednesday sent tanks into Syria to help rebels drive away Islamic State militants from the border town of Jarabulus and also to prevent Syrian Kurdish militias from moving to the area vacated by IS.

ISTANBUL— Four days after a suicide bomber, presumed to come from the Islamic State (IS), killed 54 people at a wedding party in the southeastern Turkish industrial city of Gaziantep, Turkey has retaliated with military operations against IS inside Syria, in a dramatic escalation of the long-running conflict in that country.

Turkish army tanks and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters make their way in the Syrian border town of Jarablus as it is pictured from the Turkish town of Karkamis, in the southeastern Gaziantep province

Turkish army tanks and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters make their way in the Syrian border town of Jarablus as it is pictured from the Turkish town of Karkamis, in the southeastern Gaziantep province, Turkey, August 24, 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

The operation, which began shortly before US vice-president Joe Biden arrived in Ankara on a visit intended to repair currently troubled relations between the United States and Turkey, was also aimed at the Kurdish Syrian PYD (Democratic Union Party) as well as IS, according to the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

At 6 a.m. local time Wednesday morning, Turkish air force bombers attacked IS position in the Syrian town of Jarabulus, just across the border from Turkey. Jarabulus is one of IS’s main northern outposts, from which it stages attacks on the Syrian Kurds and sometimes launches bombardments against the Turkish border town of  Karkemis.

Two hours later, Turkish tanks began rolling into Syria, marking the opening of a new phase in the five-year-old war in that country.

Ankara officials said the aim of the operation was to give assistance to the Free Syria Army (FSA), groups of Sunni rebels, backed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, in taking control of border areas. According to Turkish sources, four villages fell swiftly into FSA hands, while there was fierce fighting in and around Jarabulus. They said that 3,000 soldiers from Turkish Special Forces were now inside Syria.

Turkey has wanted to enter Syria for many years but Damascus’s control of its airspace, and the possibility of a clash with Russian forces in the country, meant that it could not do so until a ‘no fly’ zone was declared — something the U.S. and the parties to the conflict refused to agree to.

That now appears to have altered. A senior US official, apparently traveling with US Vice-President Joe Biden, said that the United States was giving air cover to the Turkish operations, telling the Syrian government to keep its planes away.

“We have full visibility on what they [the Turks] are doing,” the official told journalists.

References to this support have been relatively few so far in the Turkish media and politicians’ speeches and in Ankara the operation, known as ‘Euphrates Shield,’ is being portrayed simply as a Turkish military success.

However, Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, said “Turkey and the United States have planned this from the beginning. The US was to contribute M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) but unfortunately they have not arrived yet.”

The Syrian government in Damascus swiftly issued a condemnation of Turkey’s intervention, calling it a “blatant violation of its sovereignty.”

Prospects that Turkey might do a deal with the Assad government and use it as a proxy to end the autonomy of the PYD enclaves, known as ‘Rojava’ along the Turkish border, now seem to be fading.

On 18 August, Syrian government forces struck at Kurdish positions in the north eastern town of Hasakah from the air and ground, but their failure to make an advance seems to have dampened interest in Ankara in a possible deal against Rojava.

Syria’s Kurds are equally strongly opposed. Redur Xelil, a spokesperson for the Syrian Kurdish YPG [Peoples Protection Units, the armed wing of the PYD] declared that it was  a “blatant aggression in Syrian internal affairs”, produced by an agreement between Iran and the al Assad government.

President Erdoğan said that the PYD ‘should think about what will happen to it’ before it opposed Turkey. Turkey says that the river Euphrates and the town of Jarabulus are a ‘red line’ which the Kurds must not cross to avoid risking a clash with it. The border area west of the Euphrates is controlled by Sunni Arab groups of the FSA which it backs actively.

Turkey appears to have secured the approval of several of its other neighbors before launching  Wednesday’s intervention, including apparently Russia. Presidents Erdoğan and Putin met in Moscow on 9 August.

It also apparently secured the agreement of the Kurdistan Regional Administration in Erbil in Northern Iraq during a one-day visit to Ankara by President Masoud Barzani on Tuesday this week. The Erbil government  enjoys good relations with Turkey and is on poor terms with the Kurdish militants of Turkey and Syria.

IS, the immediate target of Wednesday’s operations, called on its followers in Turkey to rise up and commit acts of terrorism against the government. IS has been recruiting followers for several years and runs cells in at least half a dozen cities with followers trained in Syria believed to number between 2,000 and 3,000 people.

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