Turkish forces will remain in Syria for as long as it takes to cleanse the border of Islamic State and other militants, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on Friday, after a truck bombing by Kurdish militias killed at least 11 police officers.
Syrian rebels backed by Turkish special forces, tanks, and warplanes entered Jarablus, 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.
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.
Syrian rebel and Turkish forces pressed on past Jarablus on Thursday in attempt to clear the border area of any ISIS presence.
A Syrian rebel commander in charge of one of the main groups involved in the Turkish-backed operation told Reuters the forces now aimed to move westward after taking Jarablus, an advance that could take weeks or months to complete.
Colonel Ahmad Osman, speaking to Reuters from Jarablus, said the priority was now to advance about 70 km (40 miles) west to Marea, a town where rebels have long had a frontline with Islamic State.
Turkey has long lobbied for a “buffer zone” in northern Syria controlled by what it regards as moderate rebels, potentially in border territory currently held by Islamic State and stretching about 80 km (50 miles) west of Jarablus.
Sweeping out Islamic State would deprive the group of a smuggling route taken by foreign fighters joining its ranks, and could also create a safe area for displaced civilians and help to stem the flow of refugees, Turkish officials have said.