Turkish army-backed rebels advance inside Syria on ISIL
GAZİANTEP / ANKARA
Syrian rebels captured villages inside Syria from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as part of a Turkey-backed operation as the group advanced toward Jarablus, a key town that Ankara wants to cleanse of jihadists.
The Turkish Armed Forces began its cross-border “Euphrates Shield” operation early on Aug. 24 with aerial strikes and ground forces backed by strikes from rocket launchers, howitzers and tanks.
The operation came after an ISIL attack on a wedding in Turkey’s southeast on Aug. 20, which claimed 54 lives, and a series of mortar shells fired from ISIL-held regions in northern Syria hit the Karkamış district of the border province Kilis on Aug. 23.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed that the operation targeted “terrorist organizations such as Daesh [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant - ISIL] and the PYD [Democratic Union Party].”
“We are determined to protect the territorial integrity of Syria and provide that this country is ruled under the will of its own people, using our opportunities, including directly handling the matter,” Erdoğan said while addressing a meeting in Ankara on Aug. 24.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu said the operation was a “turning point” and would accelerate the removal of ISIL from Syria’s Aleppo region.
Turkey backs rebels to sweep away ISIL and insists that the PYD does not cross to the western banks of the Euphrates River.
Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş described the operation as “a short, results-based operation.”
The preparation for the operation started on Aug. 23 when Turkish Special Forces entered Syria briefly for marking key spots, Hürriyet has learned.
A second group of special forces accompanied the tanks when they rolled into Syrian soil.
Twenty tanks and nearly 20 armored vehicles advanced toward Jarablus in the operation, aiming to secure control over a 70-kilometer region.
Syrian rebels entered Syria from Turkey using a corridor opened by Turkish artillery fire.
At least 14 ISIL militants were killed in the operation, according to initial reports.
In a bid to prevent any friendly-fire causalities, the Turkmen groups fighting against ISIL wore blue arm bands while the Free Syrian Army (FSA) members wore red ones.
FSA fighters captured a total of four villages namely, Keklice, Kıvırcık, Elvaniye and Güğüncük, Doğan News Agency reported. An unconfirmed video showed Syrian rebels walking in central Jerablus.
Sources reported that Turkish tanks in Syrian territory blocked ISIL’s support routes, while Turkish F-16s and coalition jets pounded ISIL vehicles headed from the al-Bab region to support ISIL militants fighting in the Jarablus area. Some 5,000 FSA fighters, including groups from the Sultan Murat Brigade, Sukur al-Jeber, the Sham Front and Feylek al-Sham, reportedly advanced toward central Jarablus.
The mines planted by ISIL were removed as some trapped bombs were found in villages abandoned by the militants.
Many stores were closed and most of the women and children left Karkamış, the headquarters of the operation on the Turkish side of the border, which was a target of the ISIL mortar fire.
Two days before the operation, the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency of Turkey (AFAD) established a coordination center near the border and prepared tents and containers for any civilian evacuation from the region.
The operation marked the first time warplanes from Turkey had struck in Syria since November, when Ankara downed a Russian warplane near the border, and the first significant incursion by Turkish special forces since a brief operation to relocate the tomb of Suleyman Shah, a revered Ottoman figure, in February 2015.
The U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces alliance (SDF), which includes the YPG, captured the city of Manbij, just south of Jarablus, from ISIL earlier this month.