Turkish Special Forces, tanks and jets backed by planes from the U.S.-led coalition launched their first co-ordinated offensive into Syria on Wednesday to try to drive Islamic State from the border and prevent further gains by Kurdish militia fighters.
Turkish tank units and Syrian rebels backed by the NATO member crossed into northern Syria to push Islamic State out of the border town of Jarablus, military sources said. Reporter said officials at the border counted six Turkish tanks inside Syria and witnessed intense bombardments.
Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said the operation was targeting Islamic State and the Kurdish PYD party, whose gains in northern Syria have alarmed Turkey. Ankara views the PYD as an extension of Kurdish militants fighting an insurgency on its own soil, putting it at odds with Washington, which sees the group as an ally in the fight against Islamic State.
“This morning at 4 a.m. (0100 GMT) an operation started in northern Syria against terror groups which constantly threaten our country, like Daesh (Islamic State) and the PYD,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Turkey hours after operations began on a pre-planned trip, the most senior U.S. official to visit since a failed July 15 coup shook confidence in Turkey’s ability to step up the fight against Islamic State.
“Euphrates Shield“, named after the river running nearby, is Turkey’s first major military operation since the abortive coup.
A senior administration official traveling with Biden said the United States wanted to help Turkey to get Islamic State away from the border, and was providing air cover and “synching up” with the Turks on their plans for Jarablus. He said the shelling was hitting Islamic State, not Kurdish forces.
The Turkish army began firing artillery rounds into Jarablus at around 0100 GMT and Turkish and U.S. warplanes pounded Islamic State targets with air strikes.
It was the first time warplanes from Turkey have struck in Syria since November, when Turkey downed a Russian warplane near the border, and the first significant incursion by Turkish Special Forces since a brief operation to relocate the tomb of Suleyman Shah, a revered Ottoman figure, in February 2015.
Turkey and the United States hope that by removing Islamic State from the border, they can deprive it of a smuggling route which long saw its ranks swollen with foreign fighters and its coffers boosted by illicit trade.
The operation comes four days after a suicide bomber suspected of links to the group killed 54 people at a wedding in the southeaster city of Gaziantep.
But for Turkey, it also pre-empts any attempt by Syrian Kurdish militia fighters, who play a critical part of the U.S.-backed campaign against Islamic State, to take Jarablus.
Kurdish fighters have captured large areas of territory since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, and Ankara has long declared the Euphrates River, which runs just east of Jarablus, a red line which it does not want them to cross.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Kurdish fighters must return east of the Euphrates or Turkey would “do what is necessary“.