Turkish special forces backed by coalition air support launched an incursion into Syria in the early hours on Wednesday to take the town of Jarabulus from the Islamic State (IS) group, Turkey’s state-run news agency Anadolu reported.
Turkish tanks crossed the border into Syria in what officials are calling operation “Euphrates Shield”, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stating on Wednesday that his forces would be targeting “terrorist groups like Daesh (IS) and PYD,” referring to the pro-Kurdish Democratic Union Party, whose military wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG) continue to make military gains in northern Syria.
“Attacks on our country from Syria brought things to this point,” explained the President, adding that “no one will threaten our being.”
“They thinks every attack on us weakens us. They are mistaken. They make us stronger.”
The operation was launched at 4am local time (0100 GMT) and is being carried out by a joint task force of the Turkish military accompanied by US-led coalition air support.
CNN-Turk also reported that Turkey sent in Special Forces into the Syrian border town.
“The Turkish Armed Forces and the International Coalition Air Forces have launched a military operation aimed at clearing the district of Jarablus of the province of Aleppo from the terrorist organisation Daesh,” a statement from the Turkish prime minister’s office said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
This military operation marks the first time NATO troops are officially on the ground in Syria.
Turkish F-16s also pounded targets in Jarablus, the first time Turkish jets have flown over Syrian airspace since they downed a Russian fighter last November, local media reported.
Saleh Muslim Mohammed, co-chair of the PYD, tweeted in response to the Turkish incursion that the country would be “defeated” just like IS:
Turkey feared a PYD-controlled strip along its entire border with Syria after the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a coalition led by the YPG – took the town of Manbij from IS earlier this month. It was determined not to see Jarabulus fall into SDF hands as well.
Turkish foreign minister Mevlet Cavusoglu told a press conference in Ankara that the Turkish army would continue its efforts agains the YPG, saying they were “no different” from the PKK.
“Why did Salih Muslim and the YPG get upset by our operation against Daesh?,” he asked, referring to the PYD leader’s tweet.
“They have their own hidden agenda.”
He added that the YPG should “not cross west of the Euphrates.”
“The US promised this to us,” he explained. “If they cross we will take the requisite action.”
No attack on Syria’s integrity
Several mortar rounds from IS-held Jarablus hit the Turkish border town of Karkamis on Tuesday, prompting the army to pound the militant positions on Syrian soil with artillery strikes.
The stated aim of the offensive is to clear the area of militants, prevent a new wave of refugees and to create conditions for humanitarian aid to reach the area.
Ankara has been keen to emphasise that this offensive is not targeting Syria’s territorial integrity.
On Tuesday evening, Turkish authorities ordered residents to evacuate the Turkish border town of Karkamis that lies opposite of the IS-controlled Syrian town of Jarabulus, television reported.
Police warned residents through loudspeakers to evacuate from Karkamis “for safety reasons” which was hit by a series of mortar bombs fired from IS-held areas.
Turkish forces have been pounding IS positions in retaliation for shells fired into Turkish territory in recent days. Artillery shells also fell on the Turkish border town of Kilis on Tuesday.
CNN-Turk added that a group affiliated to the Free Syrian Army, the Sultan Murad Brigades – a group largely composed of Syrian Turkmens – had also entered Syria from Turkish soil on Wednesday.
Turkey has received officials from regional powers in the past few days. The president of the Kurdish region of Iraq, Massoud Barzani, and Hossein Jaberi Ansari, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, were both in the Turkish capital on Tuesday.
Jarabulus is the last major town left in the hands of the Islamic State group along the border with Turkey.
There were even unconfirmed reports that Turkish intelligence officials had travelled to Damascus earlier in the week to inform Bashar al-Assad’s government of details regarding the operation.
Erdogan criticised his EU allies on Wednesday, lambasting them for their unwillingness to accept Syrian refugees.