AMMAN: Syrian rebels say they have driven the Islamic State from its stronghold in northeastern Aleppo province on Wednesday as part of a Turkish-led offensive against what Ankara calls a “terror threat” – one that that includes not only the Islamic State, but Syrian Kurdish factions backed by the United States.
Around dawn on Wednesday, Turkish artillery fire and airstrikes began hitting Jarablus, less than 1 kilometer south of the Turkish border. Syrian rebels along with Turkish Special Forces followed on the ground with American-led coalition air cover, advancing into villages surrounding Jarablus.
Later in the day, Turkish tanks rolled into northern Syria and moved toward Jarablus, which, from a Turkish perspective, presents an active security threat on its border.
Rebels posted the pictures on social media, reportedly from inside the city. Multiple Syrian rebel groups fighting with the Turkish forces announced the “complete liberation of Jarablus city from the terrorist IS gangs” late Wednesday afternoon.
Syria Direct could not independently confirm the images or the extent of rebel control over the city and its surrounding villages.
Turkish-backed Syrian rebels reportedly captured Jarablus on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Failaq a-Sham.
Turkish officials say the battle for Jarablus, dubbed Operation Euphrates Shield, comes in response to recent attacks by IS inside Turkey and cross-border shelling on Tuesday. The campaign will continue until the “terror threat at our border is eliminated,” Turkey’s Interior Minister Efkan Ala told the state-run Anadolu Agency on Wednesday.
However, statements by Turkish officials and Syrian rebels on Wednesday indicate that the “terror threat” south of the border also includes Syria’s Kurdish factions—primarily the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
“The operation will be against the terrorist PYD and the YPG, just as it is against the terrorist Islamic State,” Turkey’s state-owned TRT broadcaster quoted Foreign Minister Mawlood Jawish Oglu as saying on Wednesday. “There is no difference between the terrorist organizations.”
The PYD is at odds with Turkey because of the former’s ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an internationally designated terrorist group which has clashed with the Turkish government inside the country for decades.
The YPG, the PYD’s armed forces, make up the bulk of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the most capable anti-IS fighting force in Syria. The SDF, backed by American airstrikes, recently retook the Islamic State’s regional hub of Manbij, roughly 30km south of Jarablus.
Immediately east of Jarablus, just across the Euphrates River, lies territory held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Kurdish forces hold territory extending eastwards along the Turkish border to Iraq.
West of Jarablus lies IS-held territory, extending 54 kilometers to the border town of al-Rai on the Turkish border, currently the site of battles between Syrian rebel factions and the Islamic State.
In a twist that reflects the increasingly complex and contradictory alliances in play in Syria, the seeming participation of the United States in support of Turkey’s Jarablus offensive conflicts with overt American support for the Kurdish brigades making up the bulk of the SDF.
Inside Jarablus. Photo courtesy of Failaq a-Sham.
On Wednesday, Washington’s support—at least west of the Euphrates river—appeared to be shifting.
American Vice President Joe Biden, in a press conference in Ankara on Wednesday, said that Kurdish forces “must move back across the Euphrates River” or they “would lose American support.”
Turkish officials echoed the same rhetoric.
“Members of the terrorist YPG must withdraw to east of the Euphrates,” Oglu warned on Wednesday, a threat that appears to include Manbij. “If not, Turkey will take the necessary steps.”
The Self-Administration, which governs nearby Kurdish-held territories in northern Syria denounced the Turkish intervention in Jarablus on Wednesday, saying it “aims to eliminate our democratic project.”
“We call on international institutions to intervene immediately to stop this violation… against our people.”
‘To liberate it from the terrorist Islamic State’
Syrian rebels either not affiliated with or battling the SDF in north Syria are natural allies for Turkey’s campaign. Rebels had sought to take the city before the Kurdish-led SDF.
Members of at least four Free Syrian Army brigades (Sultan Murad, al-Jabha al-Shamiya, Division 13 and Fastaqim Kama Umirt) and two Islamist factions (Nour a-Din a-Zinki and Failaq a-Sham) participated in the battle to take Jarablus on Wednesday.
Syrian rebels based in the north Aleppo/Azaz corridor entered Turkey in recent days before redeploying into Syria Wednesday morning through the Karkamis border crossing just north of Jarablus “to liberate it from the terrorist Islamic State,” Yaser Ibrahim al-Yousef, a spokesman for Nour e-Din a-Zinki told Syria Direct on Wednesday.
Advancing after heavy preliminary air and ground bombardment, fighters appeared to meet little resistance on Wednesday. Al-Yousef, the Zinki spokesman, told Syria Direct before the victory that the battle could last “days, maybe hours, God willing.” By press time, rebels appeared to have entered Jarablus city in a matter of hours.
“The goal is to defeat terrorist, extremist organizations and bring about the unity of the people and the land,” said al-Yousef.
‘To hold back the PYD advance’
The rebels currently in Jarablus were, earlier this month, battling the Islamic State 54km to the east, in another town south of the Turkish border.
Why move to Jarablus to fight with Turkey?
“To hold back the PYD advance in the northeastern countryside,” said Zinki spokesman al-Yousef. “To limit their violations and the forced expulsion of our people in the Aleppo countryside.”
Syrian rebels accuse Kurdish forces of pursuing a policy of demographic change in the territories they capture, which the latter stringently denies.
The Syrian regime condemned Turkey’s intervention in northern Aleppo on Wednesday, calling it a violation of national sovereignty.
“What is happening in Jarablus right now is not fighting terrorism as Turkey claims,” an unnamed Syrian Foreign Ministry official told state-run SANA on Wednesday. “It is putting another terrorism in its place,” he added, referring to the Syrian rebel groups now fighting there.
Inside Jarablus, “people are scared,” Ahmad Bakri, originally from Jarablus but currently in Gaziantep, Turkey told Syria Direct on Wednesday, requesting anonymity. Bakri’s family is still in Jarablus, and he was in contact with relatives the same day.
“They worry the regime will start bombing them after IS leaves if it is captured by the FSA.”