By Tim Arango and Ceylan Yeginsuaug, New York Times, Aug 24, 2016
ISTANBUL — Turkey mounted its largest military effort yet in the Syrian conflict on Wednesday, sending tanks, warplanes and special operations forces over the border in a United States-backed drive to capture an Islamic State stronghold in Syria.
The joint offensive on the city of Jarabulus, one of the last border strongholds of the Islamic State, began hours before Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, the Turkish capital. The timing seemed aimed at easing tensions between the two countries raised by the failed coup in Turkey last month.
The operation, clearing the way for a force of about 500 Syrian rebels to take the border town, represented a significant escalation of Turkey’s role in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL. But it also seemed as much about containing the territorial ambitions of Syrian Kurdish militias, which Turkey sees as its primary enemy in the conflict and which were poised to move against Jarabulus. Turkey signaled in recent days that it would take a more aggressive diplomatic role in Syria, working alongside Iran, Russia and the United States to seek an end to the war.
Ankara has long insisted that the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad — who is backed by Iran and Russia — would have to step down before peace talks could be held. But lately, Turkey has softened its stance, signaling that it would accept a role for Mr. Assad during a peaceful transition.
While some analysts initially thought the operation on Wednesday had been carried out with Mr. Assad’s assent, in the early afternoon, the Syrian Foreign Ministry condemned it as a breach of Syria’s sovereignty.
Although American warplanes joined the Turkish forces in Jarabulus, the operation masked deep tensions between the two NATO allies over Syria. Turkish officials, including the foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, warned that their country could ultimately end up fighting the Syrian Kurds, important allies of the United States. Recently, the Americans backed a group of fighters, mostly Syrian Kurds, in retaking the town of Manbij, not far from Jarabulus.
To allay Turkish concerns, American officials warned the Kurds against advancing on Jarabulus and said they would not support a move on the city with American air power.
Turkish officials indicated that the operation on Wednesday sought, in part, to warn Kurds working in Syria alongside American Special Operations Forces against marching on Jarabulus. Mr. Cavusoglu said the Kurdish militias must move east of the Euphrates River, away from the Turkish border, and back to where they had long controlled a stretch of territory. “If they fail to do so, we will do what is necessary,” he warned.
The operation started at 4 a.m., officials said, with Turkish and United States warplanes pounding Islamic State positions in Jarabulus. The special operations troops entered Syria to clear a passage for a ground operation by Turkish-backed rebel groups, the state broadcaster TRT reported.
The assault came days after Turkey vowed to “cleanse” its borders of the Islamic State, after a deadly suicide attack at a Kurdish wedding killed at least 54 people. The militant group was blamed for the attack. Jarabulus is a vital supply line for the Islamic State and one of its last remaining strongholds on the border.
Before Wednesday’s operation, Mr. Cavusoglu pledged to give “every kind” of support for operations against the Islamic State across the border. Turkey’s NATO allies have long sought its greater involvement in Syria. “Daesh should be completely cleansed from our borders, and we are ready to do what it takes for that,” Mr. Cavusoglu said on Tuesday at a news conference in Ankara, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
Turkish officials voiced their concerns on Wednesday about the growing influence of the United States-backed Syrian Kurds, because of their links to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. Officials in Ankara consider them a threat to national security. The Kurdish militias have captured large areas across the border, and analysts say that a Kurdish advance toward Jarabulus could lead to a confrontation with Turkey.
“Turkey is determined for Syria to retain its territorial integrity and will take matters into its own hands if required to protect that territorial unity,” Mr. Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara on Wednesday. “We have only ever sought to help the people of Syria and have no other intentions.”
Turkey also moved to increase security measures on its border with Syria, establishing a “special security zone” and urging residents to evacuate their homes, after at least nine mortar shells from Jarabulus landed in the Turkish border town of Karkamis.
The timing of the operation could ease some of the tensions between the United States and Turkey over the recent failed coup, which have reduced relations to one of their lowest points since World War II. Anti-American sentiment has reached a fever pitch in Turkey, as pro-government news outlets and government officials have sought to link the United States with the coup plot.
Further inflaming relations is the status of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric in self-exile in Pennsylvania who Turkey accuses of leading the coup plot. Turkey has sought Mr. Gulen’s extradition, and lawyers from the Justice Department arrived in Ankara this week to work with their Turkish counterparts on the process. But a decision on extradition will take time, and the Turks do not want to wait.
“We would like to see an acceleration of this process,” said Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, in a meeting with journalists on Saturday. “It’s so obvious that he was the leader of all this.”
He said if things were turned the other way around — if a person that the United States believed was a terrorist was residing in Turkey — Ankara would act immediately. “The enemy of our friend is our enemy,” he said. “That is our principle. If the U.S. implemented this principle, we’d be fine.”
Also on Wednesday, the Turkish counterterrorism police carried out dawn raids against people believed to be Islamic State militants, the local news media reported. The group has been blamed for a string of major assaults on Turkish soil over the past year, including a suicide attack at Istanbul’s main airport in June that killed over 40 people.
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