Early Wednesday morning, Turkish special forces – under the command of Lt.-Gen. Zekai Aksakalli – entered Syria to conduct operations against Islamic State. According to local reports, they arrived soon after T-155 self-propelled howitzers had hit 63 targets around the Syrian town of Jarabulus.
The Euphrates Shield operation began from Karkamis, a small border town in a region that has seen numerous crossborder incidents in the last year, including rockets and mortars fired by Islamic State across the border. Turkish media reported that a rocket fired by the terrorist organization hit Karkamis on Tuesday and the town was evacuated.
With evacuation came thousands of Turkish soldiers and tanks moving in the other direction. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus has said the operation will be “short and results-based.”
However, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin has described the goal as the “cleansing of all terrorist elements” in the area, including Islamic State and the Kurdish-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Photos online and a report in Dogan News Agency noted that 5,000 members of the Syrian opposition groups, including Faylaq al-Sham, Free Syrian Army fighters and members of the “Sultan Murat Brigade and Sukur al-Jeber” were cooperating in the Jarabulus operation. These units had already moved 3 km. to the west of Jarabulus by Wednesday afternoon.
The idea seems to be to aid the various Syrian rebel groups in carving out a buffer zone along 60 km. of border from Elbeyli near Kilis to Jarabulus and removing Islamic State from the border.
This is the only border area Islamic State still shares with Turkey, and Turkey has wanted a buffer zone as well as a no-fly zone there since last year. In the past year Turkey has constructed a concrete wall along sections of the frontier. This stemmed the flow of extremists to Islamic State and halted refugees flowing the other way.
However, in June, when tanks were reported to be moving toward Elbeyli, Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu expressed skepticism about a military operation into Syria.
The coup has helped President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unite Turkey behind his decision to intervene. He met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on August 9, held high-level meetings with Iran in mid-August and met with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani on Tuesday. US Vice President Joe Biden also arrived yesterday. The operation comes amid this renewed regional Turkish power play.
The special forces commander involved in the operation, Aksakalli, was central to helping defeat July 15’s attempted coup. This means, a month after Turkey’s traumatic night, an operation in Syria can be conducted with limited problems at home, and support for the use of the military.
Groups such as Faylaq al-Sham have close ties to Turkish policy in Syria and support the rebellion against the Assad regime, and Turkey has facilitated their operations near Kilis in the past to prevent the rebellion from collapsing in that area.
Even as the Syrian rebels are operating in the center and west of Jarabulus, the Turkish political echelon is talking about the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which controls eastern Syria and has been the central force in the fight against Islamic State, having recently taken Manbij and pressed toward the Islamic State capital of Raqqa. Its forces, the YPG, and Syrian Democratic Forces work with US special forces in the area.
But for Erdogan they are terrorists, and Turkish Foreign Minister Devlut Cavusoglu warned PYD to withdraw east of the Euphrates.
While the Syrian Democratic Forces have been supported by the US, their continued progress west of the Euphrates is now a bone of contention.
They sought to move further west into Al-Bab toward the Kurdish canton in Afrin. The Turks want to push them back across the Euphrates, and the Americans would prefer they head south toward Raqqa. This creates a complex and combustible situation. If Turkey uses the attack on Jarabulus to expand its operations against the Kurds in Syria, it will have widened the war already taking place with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey into Syria.
The Turks have long said the PKK and PYD are the same, but the boots on the ground will pave the way for a cross-border conflagration. The Russians are close to the Assad regime, which Turkey opposes. The YPG has also just finished clashing with a pocket of Assad-aligned forces in the Syrian city of Hasaka. This brings the Russians and Americans into the picture forming at Jarabulus. If all sides are not careful, a major escalation could ensue.
The Turks want breathing space from Islamic State and the YPG.
Whether this operation will bring that, or merely suck Turkey deeper into the Syrian morass, will be clear in the coming weeks.