Backed by Turkish Army, Syrian Rebels Push ISIS Out of Border Town Jarablus

Syrian rebels retake town with aid from Turkish tanks, special forces and warplanes. U.S. and Turkey agree to limit Kurdish expansion to east of Euphrates.

This picture taken from the Turkish Syrian border city of Karkamis in the southern region of Gaziantep, on August 24, 2016 shows pro-Ankara Syrian opposition fighters moving two kilometres west from the Syrian Turkish border town of Jarabulus.
Bulent Kilic / AFP

Turkish special forces, tanks and jets backed by planes from the U.S.-led coalition launched their first co-ordinated offensive into Syria on Wednesday to try to drive Islamic State from the border and prevent further gains by Kurdish militia fighters.

Syrian opposition forces said they are in control of Jarablus only hours after Turkey launched a cross-border operation to help them oust the Islamic State group from the border town in northern Syria.

Several rebel factions involved in the fighting announced they had liberated the town from ISIS, but were still fighting small pockets of militants.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian civil war, says rebels are in almost full control of Jarablus, adding that ISIS had lost its last link to the outside world.

Ahmad al-Khatib, an opposition media activist embedded with the rebels, says they control 90 percent of the town and posted photos of rebels purportedly in the town's center.

After the takeover of Jarablus, a Turkish official said the operation in Syria will continue until Turkey is convinced that threats to its national security were neutralized. According to the official, the operation aims to permanently stop the influx of foreign fighters to Syria and cut supply lines to Syrian militias.

The Turkish and Syrian governments said the cross-border incursion on the town on Jarablus was backed by U.S. airstrikes. Hundreds of Syrian opposition fighters also joined the assault. Just hours after the operation began, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden landed in Ankara.

The unprecedented incursion marked a dangerous escalation in the Syrian conflict — and demonstrates the twisted rivalries that run through the war.

This picture taken on August 24, 2016 shows a Turkish army tank driving towards Syria  in the Turkish-Syrian border city of Karkamis, in the southern region of Gaziantep.
Bulent Kilic, AFP

The U.S. has long pushed for more aggressive action by Turkey against the Islamic State group. But Turkey's move to thwart Kurdish ambitions puts it on a path toward potential confrontation with Kurdish fighters in Syria who are also supported by the United States and have been the most effective force battling ISIS in northern Syria.

Turkey has been deeply concerned by the advances of the main U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the YPG, which after months of taking territory from ISIS is poised to control nearly the entire Syrian side of the border with Turkey. The YPG is also linked to Kurdish rebels waging an insurgency in southeastern Turkey.

Speaking in Ankara, Biden backed Turkey's demand for limits on Kurdish expansion. Kurdish forces "must move back across the Euphrates River. They cannot, will not, under any circumstance get American support if they do not keep that commitment," he said.

A senior U.S. administration official said U.S. advisers have been working closely with Turkey on plans for the Jarablus operation, providing intelligence and air cover. The official was not authorized to discuss the military operations publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the military operation aims to prevent threats from "terror" groups, including the Islamic State and the YPG. He said the operation was in response to a string of attacks in Turkey, including an ISIS suicide bombing at a wedding party near the border which killed 54 people.

A senior official with the YPG's political arm warned Turkey will pay the price. Saleh Muslim, the co-president of the Democratic Union Party or PYD, tweeted that "Turkey is in Syrian Quagmire. Will be defeated as Daesh" will be. He used the Arabic language acronym for IS.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused the Kurds have a secret agenda to establish a state. "If his (Muslim) intention had been to fight Daesh then he wouldn't oppose such an operation... And so the PYD's secret agenda is out in the open."

This picture taken from the Turkish Syrian border city of Karkamis on August 24, 2016 shows smoke following air strikes by a Turkish Army jet fighter on the Syrian Turkish border village of Jarabulus.
Bulent Kilic, AFP

ISIS-held Jarablus is a key lynchpin in the Turkish-Kurdish rivalry. The town lies on the western bank of the Euphrates River at the point where it crosses from Turkey into Syria.

The YPG and other Syrian Kurds stand on the east bank of the river, and from there they hold the entire border with Turkey all the way to Iraq. They also hold parts of the border further west, so if they ever took control of Jarablus, they would control almost the entire stretch.

Last month, Kurdish forces and their allies scored a major victory, crossing west of the Euphrates to retake the town on Manbij from Islamic State militants. They now say they will push further west to assault the ISIS-held town of al-Bab.

Turkey codenamed its cross-border assault "Euphrates Shield," suggesting the aim was to keep the YPG east of the Euphrates River.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that in Biden's talks in Ankara, the two sides reached agreement that that the Syrian Kurdish forces "should never spread west of the Euphrates and not enter any kind of activity there."

A Turkish army tank and an armored vehicle are stationed near the border with Syria, Karkamis, Turkey, August 23, 2016.
IHA via AP

Cavusoglu said Syrian Kurdish forces must cross back to the east side of the Euphrates as soon as possible. "Otherwise, and I say this clearly, we will do what is necessary."

The Syrian government denounced the Turkish military incursion and called for an immediate end to what it described as a "blatant violation" of Syrian sovereignty. It said Turkish tanks and armored vehicles crossed into Syria under the cover of U.S.-led airstrikes.

Turkey has backed rebels against Syrian President Bashar Assad throughout Syria's civil war. It has conducted small, brief special forces operations in the past.

But Wednesday's assault was its first major ground incursion.

The operation began at 4 A.M. with intense Turkish artillery fire on Jarablus, followed by Turkish warplanes bombing ISIS targets in the town. Then up to 20 tanks and a contingent of special forces moved across the border, according to Turkey's private NTV television and several Syrian opposition activists.

Ahmad al-Khatib, a Syrian opposition activist embedded with the rebels, said some 1,500 opposition fighters were involved. He said the fighters come from the U.S.-backed Hamza brigade, as well as rebel groups fighting government forces in Aleppo, such as the Nour el-Din el Zinki brigade, the Levant Front, and Failaq al-Sham.

Fighters from the powerful and ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham brigade are also present, he said.

Biden's visit comes at a difficult time for ties between the two NATO allies. Turkey is demanding that Washington quickly extradite a U.S.-based cleric blamed for orchestrating last month's failed coup while the United States is asking for evidence against the cleric and that Turkey allow the extradition process to take its course.

But Biden's comments put Washington and Ankara on the same page on limiting the advances by the United States' other main ally in the conflict, the Syrian Kurds.

The capture of the town of Manbij last month from ISIS heightened Turkey's fears. It was seized by the Kurdish-led group known as the Syria Democratic Forces, or SDF. The U.S. says it has embedded some 300 special forces with the SDF, and British special forces have also been spotted advising the group.