In a surprising and quick move, Turkey has established a safe zone in northern Syria it had been asking for almost two years, promising to widen the belt to secure its frontier from Islamist extremists and Kurdish militants.
Relatively quick capture of dozens of villages from Islamic State militants surprised many observers, with many asking why Turkey did not act earlier to drive out ISIS insurgents from the border. The liberation of villages by the Free Syrian Army, loose network of moderate rebel groups, backed by Turkish tanks and air support, also cut off key ISIS supply lines through Turkey’s porous border. It had been a longtime goal of the US-led coalition to flush out ISIS militants from the last stretch of Turkish-Syrian border and Turkey was often blamed for dragging its feet over concerns that Kurds would take up vacated territories.
On Sunday, Turkish army announced that the FSA liberated a thin stretch of territory between Azaz and Jarablus and effectively sealed Turkish border from ISIS militants. The Turkey-backed military operation also aimed at dividing two Kurdish cantons in a bid to prevent a possible Kurdish statelet on the Turkish border. On Sunday, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim vowed that Ankara “will never ever” allow an “artificial state” in northern Syria.
The Turkish military operation dubbed Euphrates Shield was kicked off on Aug. 24 and quickly liberated the town of Jarablus from ISIS. The army opened a second line of attack through the town of ar-Rai on Saturday and quickly captured nearly 30 villages.
The 12-day joint military operation by Turkey and the rebels captured nearly 600 km2 of territory from ISIS, but also several villages from Kurdish militants south of Jarablus.
Earlier this month, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces captured the town of Manbij close to the Turkish border, a significant victory for the anti-ISIS coalition as it plans to advance towards Raqqa, de facto capital of ISIS. But Turkey is alarmed by the prospect of Kurds carving out their own state in northern Syria and fears that it may whip up separatist sentiments among its own Kurdish population in the restive Southeast.
The war next door quickly spilled over into Turkey over the weekend, sparking one of the most violent phases of the fighting since the collapse of the 2-½-year fragile truce last summer. At least 20 Turkish troops were killed in separate clashes with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish rebel group fighting for autonomy in Turkey. Leader of PKK’s military wing Cemil Bayik said the clashes will escalate unless Turkey withdraws from Syria.
State-run Anadolu news agency reported that the safe belt, where Turkey is also planning to host refugees headed to the Turkish border, is set to expand, citing security sources.