Turkey is planning to expand newly captured territory along its Syrian border, but it is poised to face a more robust enemy as it digs deeper into the Syrian territory and needs to ensure Russian blessing to establish a safe zone.
Two weeks into the operation Euphrates Shield, Turkey wrested nearly a dozen more villages from ultra-hardline Islamists on Monday, deepening its involvement further towards the south. Ankara’s long-stated goal of establishing a safe zone between Afrin and Jarablus and some 40-mile deep into Syrian territory is particularly designed to separate two Kurdish cantons. Turkey claims its priority is to flush out ISIS militants from its border.
Last week, Turkey opened a second line of attack through the town of ar-Rai and advanced further 14 kms deep to the south. As Syrian rebels, backed by Turkish tanks and air force, took two villages on Tuesday, ISIS hit two Turkish tanks with laser-guided missiles, killing two Turkish troops and injuring five others. Another Turkish soldier died later in the hospital.
Tuesday’s deaths brought Turkey’s total toll to four in Syria, relatively small figure despite a two-week offensive that captured at least 680 km2 territory from ISIS. But observers warn that Turkey will face a stronger adversary while it advances further towards al-Bab, a frontline ISIS stronghold that is key in defending against Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital.
In Washington, Pentagon said Turkey’s military operation to close the gap between Afrin and Jarablus will have a “significant impact” on the fight against ISIS. “Whether it’s foreign fighters coming in or terrorists going out, this will have a very significant impact and it’s a very important strategic development in our overall campaign to degrade and defeat [ISIS],” Defense Department Press Operations Director Navy Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters on Tuesday.
Earlier last month, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces liberated Manbij city, but refused to cross into the east bank of Euphrates river despite pressure from Washington and Ankara. Turkish troops have been advancing towards Manbij since their first incursion through Jarablus and occupied 24 km territory up until Sajur river.
Turkey has long lobbied for a no-fly zone, but failed to secure the backing of the U.S. Nine-month confrontation with Russia also complicated Turkey’s military efforts in northern Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with his Russian and US counterparts on the margins of G20 summit in China, and brought up the issue of no-fly zone in northern Syria. Officials noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed Turkey’s recent victories against ISIS, but was not sympathetic to the safe zone.
Washington, once again, rejected Erdogan’s plea to help establish a no-fly zone. “We have determined that a no-fly zone would not be the best dedication of U.S. resources,” Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser, said on Tuesday.
He said the U.S. does not think a no-fly zone would resolve the fundamental issues on the ground.
The Obama administration maintains that a no-fly zone would mean a direct confrontation with the regime in Damascus and that more military resources must be committed to secure a ground protection of civilians. With Turkish army on the ground in the Manbij area, US officials are yet to change their position with respect to imposing a no-fly zone.