The Turkish military supported by warplanes from the US-led coalition launched an operation at 4am on August 24 to clear the town of Jarablus, in Northern Syria, from Islamic State militants, state-run news agency Anadolu reported.
Turkish artillery and warplanes are pounding Islamic State positions in the town but it is not clear whether land forces have crossed the border. Local news channel NTV, however, reported that units from Turkish special forces are now in Northern Syria.
The operation is aimed at clearing the Turkish borders of terrorist groups, helping to enhance border security and supporting the territorial integrity of Syria, Turkish officials told Anadolu Agency. By sweeping Islamic State from the border, Ankara and Washington hope to cut off the extremist group’s vital supply routes.
The military operation was launched after a number of mortar bombs fired from IS-controlled Jarablus landed in the Turkish town of Karkamis on August 23. There were no reported casualties but the local authorities ordered residents to evacuate the town.
The military move comes in the wake of a suicide bomb attack, blamed on Islamic State, that killed at least 54 people at a Kurdish wedding in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, at the weekend.
Last week, a senior Syrian rebel told Reuters that official said Turkish-backed Syrian rebels were preparing to launch an attack to seize Jarablus from Islamic State. The rebels were expected to attack Jarablus from inside Turkey in the next few days, the news agency had reported.
Anadolu Agency did not say whether Syrian opposition forces are taking part in the offensive on Jarablus.
The situation on the ground is very complex with different factions fighting each other: The Syrian regime forces, Syrian opposition groups, Kurds and Islamic State. Russia is also providing air power to the Syrian regime forces. The US-led coalition forces are supporting both the Syrian opposition and the Kurds.
The military operation may risk potential confrontation with the Syrian Kurdish group PYD which has made significant gains against Islamic State in Northern Syria over the past weeks.
Kurdish-led forces last week liberated the town of Manbij, just 30 kilometres from Jarablus, from the radical Islamist group.
Ankara has been alarmed by the growing influence of the PYD along the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkey maintains that the PYD is the extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and is a terrorist group.
The PYD has established autonomous regions along the Turkish border since the beginning of the Syrian civil war and the capture of Manbij was a step forward towards linking the areas controlled by the PYD on the east and west banks of the Euphrates River. Ankara has repeatedly said it will not tolerate the creation of a Kurdish state in Northern Syria.
The military operation in Northern Syria coincides with US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Turkey. Biden is expected to arrive in Ankara on August 24 for key talks with top Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Relations between Ankara and Washington have turned sour after last month’s botched coup. Ankara says the U.S-based cleric Fethullah Gulen masterminded the putsch and is demanding his extradition from Washington.
But the joint military operation launched against Islamic State in Syria could be a sign that Ankara is not yet willing to break ties with its long-time ally.
Ankara’s recent rapprochement with Russia worried Turkey’s Western friends as its move is seen as a shift in Turkish foreign policy: turning its back on the West and looking east in search of new strategic partners in the wake of the coup attempt.
Ankara has accused its Western allies of showing little support for the government after the putsch.
The military operation to take control of Jarablus may also provoke revenge attacks from Islamic State like the ones in Ankara last year that killed more than 100 people and the suicide attack in Gaziantep last weekend. Hurriyet reported that the police are rounding up suspected Islamic State militants at dawn raids in a number of neighbourhoods in Istanbul on August 24.