Syrian rebel militias – backed by Turkish tanks and US air strikes – retook control of the Syrian town of Jarabulus on the Turkish border on Wednesday, rebel groups and an NGO said. The town had been held by the Islamic State group since 2014.
“Jarabulus is completely liberated,” Ahmad Othman, commander of the Sultan Mourad rebel group, told AFP from the scene. Another rebel spokesman said Islamic State (IS) group fighters had retreated towards Al-Bab to the southwest.
The operation – dubbed “Euphrates Shield” – was launched at around 4am local time (1am GMT), with Turkish artillery pounding dozens of IS group targets around Jarabulus, Ankara said.
Turkish tanks crossed the Syrian border in Turkey’s first such incursion since February 2015 and its largest military effort yet in the conflict. US warplanes also entered the battle, with a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, saying both A-10 “Warthog” ground attack aircraft and F-16 fighter jets were launching air strikes.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group with sources on the ground, said the IS group had put up “very little resistance” before being driven out of Jarabulus.
It was the first time since the IS group declared a “caliphate” across Syria and neighbouring Iraq in June 2014 that the jihadists had given up an area under its control within just hours.
Jarabulus had a population of 30,000, half of them displaced from other parts of war-torn Syria, according to Fabrice Balanche, a French expert on the political geography of Syria.
Its population is mainly Arab but the town also had Turkmen and Kurdish minorities before its capture by IS group jihadists in January 2014.
Damascus slams intervention
Damascus swiftly condemned the Turkish military operation, with Syria’s foreign ministry calling the incursion a breach of its sovereignty, according to state television.
It added that any counter operations inside its borders had to be conducted in coordination with the Syrian government, accusing Ankara of launching the incursion to replace IS group fighters with “other terrorist groups”, in a reference to rebels.
“The aim of the operation is to ensure border security and Syria’s territorial integrity while supporting the US-led coalition against Islamic State,” one Turkish military source said.
Turkey had vowed on Monday to “completely cleanse” IS group militants from its border region after a suicide bomber suspected of links to the group killed 54 people at a Kurdish wedding in southeastern city of Gaziantep.
Turkey is also concerned about the growing influence of Syrian Kurdish militant groups along its border, where they have captured large areas of territory since the start of the Syrian war in 2011. Ankara sees them as tied to the Kurdish militants fighting an insurgency in Turkey.
The Kurdish YPG militia, a critical part of the US-backed campaign against the IS group, took near complete control of Hasaka city on Tuesday. The group already controls swaths of northern Syria where Kurdish groups have established de facto autonomy since the start of the Syria war.
Their growing influence has alarmed Ankara, which is fighting its own insurgency with militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, who officials blame for an escalation of attacks in the southeast of Turkey.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)