Turkish army has sent more tanks into northern Syria to the west of a border town seized from the Islamic State (ISIS) group last week, opening a new front in a cross-border intervention aimed at sweeping its fighters from the area.
The operation was launched by Turkey from Kilis province – an area frequently targeted by Islamic State rockets – and is parallel to a separate push by the Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, who seized several villages further to the east on August 25.
On Saturday the tanks crossed the frontier and entered the Syrian rebel-controlled town of al-Rai to support the new offensive, a rebel spokesman and monitors said.
Al-Rai is about 55 km (34 miles) west of Jarablus, and part of a 90-km corridor near the Turkish border that Ankara says it is clearing of jihadists and protecting from Kurdish militia expansion.
The rebels then seized villages to the east and the south of al-Rai, according to one rebel official.
“They took several villages, about eight villages. At first they took two and withdrew from them, but then reinforcements came and there was an advance,” Zakaria Malahifji of the Aleppo-based Fastaqim group told Reuters.
The Turkish-backed operation was putting pressure on Islamic State from both east and west of a stretch of territory it controls along the border between the towns.
“The operations are to work from al-Rai towards the villages that were liberated to the west of Jarablus,” Colonel Ahmed Osman of the Sultan Murad rebel group told Reuters.
“Today the tanks and armored personnel started crossing in to Syria,” said journalist Hashem Ahelbarra on Saturday, reporting from Gaziantep on the Turkish border with Syria.
“It seems the that the Turkish government is going to further move into al-Rai where there is the presence of the FSA with the aim of driving ISIS out of those areas,” around the town, said Ahelbarra.
“From Jarablus to al-Rai, there is some 90 kilometers of border area that was under ISIS control for quite some time.”
Turkey, continued Ahelbarra, was “paving the way for the FSA to take over”.
Syrian rebels advance in villages around Jarablus
The Hamza Brigade, also part of the Free Syrian Army, said it had taken control of Arab Ezza, a village about 30 km west of Jarablus and near where Turkish warplanes carried out air strikes on Friday.
FSA factions had also captured the villages of Fursan, Lilawa, Kino and Najma just south of Arab Ezza, according to a source in another rebel group, the Failaq al-Sham.
“Today, the rebel factions managed to take control of the villages of Arab Ezza, al-Fursan, and have moved towards Lilwa,” Ahmed Othman, a commander in the pro-Turkey rebel group Sultan Murad said.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group that records daily developments in the war, confirmed that the rebels had taken several villages.
“Since Jarablus, we have headed west and managed to take over 17 villages from ISIS,” said Othman.
“The goal is to take control of all the villages between al-Rai and Jarablus”.
The Sultan Murad group and other rebel outfits affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), have already driven ISIS out of both towns.
Turkish-backed rebels have been met with little resistance as they captured border villages, Othman said.
“There are no clashes, ISIS fighters flee as soon as they see us advancing, especially because we are supported by Turkish air power,” he said.
According to Othman, Turkish tanks “have not entered any of the villages, but have remained on standby on the Syrian side of the border”.