Turkey’s Jarablus move: What does it mean?
At 04.00 on Aug. 24, Turkish artillery started to pound Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) positions in and around the Syria border town of Jarablus. It continued for one hour and 45 minutes. Then between 06.00 a.m. and 06.30 a.m., Turkish Air Force jets hit ISIL depots and operation centers in the town, reportedly without entering Syrian air space and possibly with the help of Turkish Special Forces units infiltrated into Syria a few days ago. Thousands of Free Syria Army (FSA) militia forces then started marching from the Turkish border into Syria, first clearing the villages to the west of Jarablus and then to the town itself. Meanwhile, Turkish tanks and armored vehicles crossed into Syrian soil in support of the advancing FSA units.
The operation, code named “Euphrates Shield,” targeted the taking of Jarablus, very close to the Turkish border, from the hands of ISIL. The decision to stage it was taken during an emergency meeting in Istanbul on Aug. 20.
The reason why Turkey took the risk of getting involved in a military operation in a neighboring country embroiled in a civil war for the last five years was the intelligence reports reaching Ankara about the Jarablus-bound advances of the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG is the militia of the Democratic Unity Party (PYD), the Syria branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been involved in an armed campaign against Turkey since 1984. The YPG units were the dominant part of the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), which took the town of Manbij, south of Jarablus, from ISIL on Aug. 12, with heavy support from the U.S. with its air forces and special forces.
Right after that, Turkey reminded the U.S. of the promise it gave to not allow the PYD forces to remain west of the Euphrates river after clearing Manbij. The Pentagon announced that the U.S. would honor its promise but they needed more time. When the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MİT) got reports that the PYD had continued to move to take Jarablus itself, the Turkish government decided to take the initiative.
Jarablus is important for Turkey for three main reasons:
1- It is located on the west bank of the Euphrates, where the river flows out of Turkish territory. It was not only the last available place for the infiltration of ISIL militants into and out of Turkey; it was also the only important settlement in the hands of ISIL left along the 910 km Turkey-Syria border. Removing ISIL from Jarablus would have meant cutting all its main routes to the north of Syria, to Turkey and beyond.
2- The ISIL militants who escaped from Manbij had moved to Jarablus, increasing their presence on the Turkish border to critical levels. The Turkish government suspects that it was ISIL that carried out the bomb attack on a wedding party in Gaziantep on night of Aug. 20, which killed 54 people, 30 of them children. RDX was the explosive compound used in the bomb, which Turkish Interior Minister Efkan Ala said showed ISIL might have received “professional help,” thus further upgrading the ISIL threat to Turkey.
3- If the PYD had taken Jarablus from ISIL then it was possible that the PYD would have kept going west along the Turkish border to meet with the town of Afrin, (also under PYD control), ignoring Turkish warnings that they should stay east of the Euphrates and not form a “Kurdish corridor” along the entire border. The Turks did not want to hear a “Sorry, the PYD did not listen to us” excuse from the Americans after Jarablus was taken.
So Turkey informed the U.S., the Russians, the Iranians, the Iraqi Kurds and other related parties that they were moving in. It also stressed its intention was not to stay in Syria, but to help the FSA in the establishment of an “ISIL-free” zone on the Turkish border from Jarablus to Azez. That area would be 98 kilometers in width and 45 km in depth, (45 km is the range of Turkish “Fırtına-Storm” howitzers).
The idea of an ISIL-free zone, to provide an operation base for the Syrian rebels and to provide a safe zone for future migrants, was suggested by Turkish officials and agreed upon by the Americans exactly one year ago. But it was never implemented. The Russian arrival into the Syrian theater in September 2015 made it practically impossible, while the downing of a Russian plane by a Turkish jet (the pilot of which was arrested over his involvement in the failed July 15 coup attempt) put all Turkish operations on hold. But a letter of “excuse” by Erdoğan to Russian President Vladimir Putin started a normalization in relations on June 27 this year, and the subsequent diplomacy made the Aug. 24 operation possible for Turkey.