More than 80 ISIS targets were attacked in the first hours of “Operation Euphrates Shield” early Wednesday, officials say, as Turkish armor and warplanes targeted a key ISIS-held town across its border with Syria.
Jarablus is one of the few towns in northern Syria that ISIS still controls and is a critical location for supplies, money and fighters coming into ISIS-held areas.
In recent months, much of Turkey’s firepower has been directed at the Kurdish separatist PKK in southeastern Turkey and across the border in northern Iraq. It has also occasionally shelled ISIS positions in northern Syria, but its last-known airstrikes against ISIS were in November last year.
Why is Turkey doing this now?
Turkish authorities have been pressed into taking action against ISIS by the surge of suicide bombings in Turkey, as well as the terror group’s use of safe houses and “informal” financial services on Turkish soil.
“Daesh should be completely cleansed from our borders, and we are ready to do that,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Tuesday, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
In recent days mortar shells apparently fired from ISIS positions in the Jarablus area landed in the Turkish town of Karkamis. More importantly, Turkish authorities blamed ISIS for a devastating suicide bombing at a wedding in the border town of Gaziantep at the weekend, killing 54 people.
It was the latest in a number of suspected ISIS bombings on Turkish soil, including a suicide attack on Istanbul’s international airport in June.
Ankara may also have calculated that ISIS is especially vulnerable, after many of its remaining fighters fled Manbij, another key stronghold in Syria. The town was liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces backed by the United States.
ISIS’ lines of communication and resupply have now been disrupted and it’s taken heavy losses across northern Syria in recent months.
But Turkey is anxious that ISIS’ vulnerability could provide an opportunity for their “other” enemy in northern Syria – the Kurdish YPG militia – who have taken several villages near Jarablus recently.
There may also be an internal reason for this offensive now. The morale of the military was shaken by July’s coup attempt; a successful offensive against ISIS would play well both for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the high command.
What does Turkey want to achieve?
Turkey has several aims. One is to degrade ISIS in this area – to push the threat it poses away from the Turkish border and make infiltration harder. Beyond that, Turkey wants this part of Syria to become part of its sphere of influence. If it can clear this area of ISIS, it plans to inject Syrian rebel groups that it supports, according to officials. Several hundred are currently massed on the border, according to the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights.
The advantage for Turkey in putting its “own” groups into this part of Syria is to stop the Kurdish advance in its tracks.
Ankara sees the YPG as a terrorist group indistinguishable from the PKK, which it battles on a daily basis in south-eastern Turkey. The Syrian Kurds have made no secret of their desire to expel ISIS and link the two regions of northern Syria they already control. They would then oversee much of Syria’s border with Turkey.
Hence the words of Erdogan Wednesday: “Turkey is determined that Syria retains its territorial integrity and will take matters into its own hands if required to protect that unity.”
Who’s fighting who in Syria?
How much is Turkey working with coalition partners?
“We are working together with the coalition regarding air support,” Cavusoglu said Wednesday. In addition, it’s likely that the US is providing intelligence and targeting data to Turkish forces using unmanned aerial vehicles from the Incirlik air base.
The US has long urged Turkey to become more involved in operations against ISIS in northern Syria, but relations have been strained by the crackdown following the coup attempt in Turkey last month and a surge of anti-US sentiment in Turkey.
Cooperating in a substantial effort to weaken ISIS – just as Vice President Joe Biden arrives in Ankara – is one way to overcome a troubled few weeks. Additionally, in light of the sudden rapprochement between Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the US wants to reinforce its partnership with Turkey.
The US is also sending a message to the Syrian Kurds, its most effective partner on the ground in this region: that American support is not a blank check and that they should not provoke the Turks by moving on Jarablus.
Will Turkey will get sucked in further?
If the aim of the operation is to expel ISIS from Jarablus and surrounding areas, it’s unlikely to be achieved in days. Manbij took weeks to clear, despite a ground offensive and hundreds of US airstrikes. One problem is the risk of substantial civilian casualties. ISIS frequently uses civilians as human shields, preventing them from leaving urban areas, to make targeting more difficult.
Perhaps the greatest risk is that this incursion on the ground will spill over into conflict with Kurdish forces. But the Kurds will realize that with their light, outmoded weaponry, they are no match for Turkish tanks.
The US is likely encouraging the YPG – to which it indirectly supplies weapons and training – to stay out of this. Additionally, Syrian Kurdish sources say they believe Turkey would like nothing better than a pretext to go after the YPG.
But if the Kurds don’t return to the eastern banks of the Euphrates – Turkey’s “red line” – the operation against ISIS could evolve into something very different – perhaps a broader operation that also focuses on the YPG.
Reaction at home?
Turkish public opinion is likely to support this operation, in light of recent attacks blamed on ISIS, so long as its scope and duration is defined.
But in Damascus, the Assad regime has bitterly criticized it as a “blatant breach to its sovereignty.”
The Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that “substituting (ISIS) with other terrorist organizations backed directly by Turkey” is not “fighting terrorism.”