Turkey opens new front against ISIL in Syria

Tanks cross into Syrian village of Al Rai, placing Turkish forces on both sides of the last small stretch of territory held by ISIL along Syria’s border with Turkey.
Turkish military tanks are seen during clashes between Turkish soldiers and ISIL fighters in the southern region of Gaziantep on September 3, 2016. Bulent Kilic / AFP
Turkish military tanks are seen during clashes between Turkish soldiers and ISIL fighters in the southern region of Gaziantep on September 3, 2016. Bulent Kilic / AFP

GAZIANTEP, TURKEY // Turkey broadened its military intervention in Syria on Saturday, deploying tanks for the first time to a small pocket of rebel-held territory hugging the border north of Aleppo.

About 20 tanks, five armoured personnel carriers, lorries and other armoured vehicles crossed into the Syrian town of Al Rai, according to the pro-government Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah.

The deployment places Turkish forces on both sides of the last small stretch of territory held by ISIL along Syria’s 911-kilometre border with Turkey. After the recent advances by Turkey-backed Syrian rebels, the extremist group holds only about 25km of the frontier.

Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield – aimed at clearing out ISIL and pushing the Kurdish YPG forces east of the Euphrates River – began on August 24 when the rebels, supported by Turkish air strikes, artillery and tanks, seized the town of Jarabulus from ISIL. After taking Jarabulus, about 55km north-east of Al Rai, the rebels began moving west to link up with their comrades in the small enclave north of Aleppo.

But while the offensive against ISIL continued, rebel forces also increasingly moved against Kurdish YPG forces who are also fighting ISIL, drawing international criticism.

The move into Al Rai on Saturday was met by ISIL firing six rockets at the Turkish border town of Kilis, injuring one person, according to Daily Sabah. Turkey responded by shelling the positions from where the rockets were launched.

Turkey has feared retaliation from the extremists at home as a result of the operation. On Friday, the government banned outdoor celebrations, fearing attacks like the bombing that killed more than 50 people at a wedding in Gaziantep just days before Turkey’s intervention.

Turkey has also accelerated the building of a wall along parts of its border with Syria facing YPG territory to cut the risk of attacks from Kurdish forces in Syria.

Turkey’s moves against Kurdish forces have aggravated the United States, which backs the YPG and considers the group to be the most effective fighting force on the ground against ISIL in Syria. Turkey, however, regards the group as “terrorists” and an arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, with which it is at war at home.

Turkey has repeatedly called for YPG forces to withdraw east of the Euphrates River, with the US echoing those calls. The US says the majority of Kurdish forces have crossed back to the other side of the river, but Turkey refutes this.

The Turkey-backed rebels say they intend to push south from Jarabulus and capture the town of Manbij, which the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish and Arab groups dominated by the YPG, seized from ISIL last month.

Campaigning for Hillary Clinton on Thursday, US vice president Joe Biden hinted at a larger US role in the conflict by saying the US had intended to move special forces into the town of Manbij following a withdrawal of Kurdish forces east of the Euphrates.

Barack Obama and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan will have the chance to calm the latest tensions when they meet at the G20 summit in China on Sunday for the first time since the failed coup attempt against Mr Erdogan in July.

jwood@thenational.ae​

Published: September 3, 2016 04:00 AM

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