Turkey sent more tanks into northern Syria on Thursday and demanded Kurdish militias to retreat within a week as it seeks to secure the border region and drive back the Islamic State in its first major intervention into Syria.
Syrian rebel and Turkish forces pressed on past Jarablus on Thursday in attempt to clear the border area of any ISIS presence.
“The Free Syrian Army now is in total control of Jarablus and the area surrounding it, and they say that they are now going to try to move forward to recapture the territory that is now under ISIS control … particularly in al-Bab,” a journalist said.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that ISIS had been driven out of Jarablus and that it was now controlled by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.
But Erdogan and senior government officials have made it clear that the aim of “Operation Euphrates Shield” is as much about stopping the Kurdish YPG from seizing more territory along the border and filling the void left by ISIS as it is about eliminating the hardline group itself.
Turkey demanded that the YPG retreat to the east side of the Euphrates within a week. The Kurdish militia had moved west of the river earlier this month as part of a US-backed operation, now completed, to capture the city of Manbij from ISIS.
Turkey attacks Kurdish militias
After seizing Jarablus, the Turkish-backed rebels have advanced up to 10 km (6 miles) south of the border town, rebel sources and a group monitoring the war said.
But hours after the YPG said it had withdrawn east of the Euphrates, Turkish state media reported that Turkish artillery had shelled YPG fighters south of Jarablus, claiming they had advanced westward.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said Kurdish-backed forces opposed by Ankara had gained up to 8 km of ground northwards, apparently seeking to pre-empt advances by the rebels.
Turkish Defence Minister Fikri Isik said preventing the Kurdish PYD party – the political arm of the YPG – from uniting Kurdish cantons east of Jarablus with those further west was a priority.
“Islamic State should be completely cleansed, this is an absolute must. But it’s not enough for us … The PYD and the YPG militia should not replace Islamic State there,” Isik told Turkish broadcaster NTV.
“The PYD’s biggest dream is to unify the western and eastern cantons. We cannot let this happen,” he said.
Isik said the retreat was not yet complete and Washington had given assurances that this would happen in the next week.
“If the PYD does not retreat to east of the Euphrates, we have the right to do everything about it,” the minister said.
Saleh Muslim, head of the Kurdish PYD, said on Wednesday that Turkey was entering a “quagmire” in Syria and faced defeat there like Islamic State. Redur Xelil, spokesman for the YPG, said the intervention was a “blatant aggression in Syrian internal affairs”.
Ankara views the YPG as a threat because of its close links to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has waged a 30-year insurgency on its own soil.
It has been alarmed by the YPG’s gains in northern Syria since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, fearing it could extend Kurdish control along Turkish borders and fuel the ambitions of its own Kurdish insurgents.