Syrian rebels backed by Turkish special forces, tanks, and warplanes entered one of Islamic State’s last strongholds on the Turkish-Syrian border on Wednesday, in Turkey’s first major U.S.-backed incursion into its southern neighbor.
A column of at least nine Turkish tanks crossed into Syria with the group of largely Arab and Turkmen rebels to drive Islamic State out of Jarablus and surrounding villages. A Reuters reporter at the border witnessed intense bombardments, with palls of black smoke rising around the town.
Rebel commanders said most of the ISIS militants subsequently retreated.
President Tayyip Erdogan said the operation was targeting both Islamic State and the Kurdish PYD party, whose gains in northern Syria have alarmed Turkey. Ankara views the PYD as an extension of Kurdish militants fighting the Turkish government on its own soil, putting it at odds with Washington, which sees the group as an ally in the fight against Islamic State.
“This morning at 4 a.m. (0100 GMT) an operation started in northern Syria against terror groups which constantly threaten our country, like ISIS (Islamic State) and the PYD,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.
The offensive, dubbed “Euphrates Shield”, is Turkey’s first major military operation since a failed July 15 coup shook confidence in its ability to step up the fight against Islamic State. It comes four days after a suicide bomber suspected of links to the group killed 54 people at a wedding in the southeastern city of Gaziantep.
Islamic State withdraws without resistance
A rebel commander with the Failaq al-Sham group, who requested anonymity, told Reuters that most of the Islamic State fighters in Jarablus had pulled out, some of them surrendering. A second rebel commander estimated up to 50 percent of the town was now under the control of the Turkish-backed rebels.
“ISIS fighters have withdrawn from several villages on the outskirts of Jarablus and are heading south towards the city of al-Bab,” the Failaq al-Sham commander said.
Many of the rebels were from Jarablus itself and were jubilant over what they saw as a long overdue intervention. Amateur video footage from one rebel source seen by Reuters showed little sign of heavy fighting in the town center, suggesting Islamic State had pulled out with little resistance. Reuters could not independently authenticate the video.
Syria’s foreign ministry condemned what it said was a breach of its sovereignty and accused Ankara of launching the incursion to replace Islamic State with “other terrorist groups”. Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, said it was deeply worried by the escalation of tension after Turkey’s move.