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Syria rebels backed by Turkey tanks ‘seize’ Daesh-held town

By AFP - Aug 24,2016 - Last updated at Aug 24,2016

Members of Free Syrian Army (FSA) pose as they patrol in Jarabulus district of Aleppo, Syria, after taking control of the district’s centre from Daesh terrorists during the ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ led by Turkish army and backed by Syrian National Coalition forces including FSA, on Wednesday (Photo by Anadolu Agency)

KARKAMIS, Turkey — Turkish tanks and hundreds of opposition fighters thrust deep inside Syrian territory on Wednesday in a lightning operation that within hours ousted Daesh extremists from a key Syrian border town.

The air and ground offensive — the most ambitious launched by Ankara in the Syria conflict — made rapid progress towards Jarabulus with rebel fighters already proclaiming victory by the late afternoon just 14 hours after it started.

"Jarabulus is completely liberated," Ahmad Othman, a commander of the Sultan Mourad rebel group, told AFP from the scene, while another rebel spokesman said Daesh fighters had fled towards Al Bab to the southwest.

Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency said the Syrian fighters had taken the town centre, with just one Syrian rebel fighter killed and 10 wounded. No Turkish forces lost their lives.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan emphasised the operation was also targeting Kurdish militia fighters strongly opposed by Ankara — but backed by the US as a key ally against Daesh — who had also been closing in on Jarabulus. 

But visiting US Vice President Joe Biden reassured Turkey that Washington had told the Kurdish fighters under no circumstances to cross west of the Euphrates River or face the total loss of American support. 

 

'Don't cross the river' 

 

The operation — named "Euphrates Shield" — began at around 4:00 am (0100 GMT) with Turkish artillery pounding dozens of Daesh targets around Jarabulus.

Turkish F-16 fighter jets also hit targets inside Syria. 

A dozen Turkish tanks then rolled into Syria along with hundreds of Syrian opposition fighters in pick-ups who then moved south towards Jarabulus.

US A-10s and F-16s warplane also hit Daesh targets in Syria in support of the offensive, a US official said.

The effects of one air raid on the northern outskirts of Jarabulus were easily visible, sending up a cloud of black smoke and sand.

The speed of the advance was stunning and stood in stark contrast to the long, grinding battles it had taken for Kurdish forces to recapture towns from Daesh in northern Syria, such as Kobane and Manbij.

Turkey’s NTV television said that Daesh militants had shown little resistance to the advancing forces. The Dogan news agency said 46 extremists were killed but this was not confirmed by officials.

Reconnaissance teams of the Syrian fighters were now working in the centre of Jarabulus to check for any explosives left behind by the extremists.

A Turkish official, who declined to be named, said: “Turkey will continue operations until we are convinced that imminent threats against the country’s national security have been neutralised.”

Turkey wants to show it is serious about taking on Daesh, which has been blamed for a string of attacks inside the country — the latest a weekend attack on a Kurdish wedding in Gaziantep that left 54 people dead, many of them children.

Ankara has in the past been accused of turning a blind eye to the rise of Daesh in Syria and even aiding its movements to-and-fro across the border, claims the government had always vehemently denied.

Turkey has long been alarmed about the activities inside Syria of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which Washington sees as an ally but Ankara regards as a terror group.

But Biden on Wednesday said Washington had made clear to pro-Kurdish forces in Syria that they must not cross west of the Euphrates River.

“They cannot, will not and under no circumstances [will] get American support if they do not keep that commitment. Period,” he said. 

Saleh Moslem, head of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the YPG’s political wing, tweeted that Turkey was now in the “Syrian quagmire” and would be “defeated” like Daesh.

But a senior US administration official said Washington had already been “syncing up” with Turkey for the operation and US advisers had been in a planning cell.

 

‘Enough is enough’ 

 

Erdogan said the operation was aimed against both Daesh and PYD — “terror groups that continuously threaten our country in northern Syria”.

“We have said ‘enough is enough’... This now needs to be resolved,” he said.

The Turkish air strikes were the first since a November crisis with Russia sparked when the Turkish air force downed one of Moscow’s warplanes.

The movements have come at a critical juncture for Turkey in Syria’s five-and-a-half-year war, with signs growing it is on the verge of a landmark policy shift.

Ankara has always called for the removal of President Bashar Assad, putting Turkey at odds with his main supporters Iran and Russia.

However Prime Minister Binali Yildirim acknowledged at the weekend for the first time that Assad was one of the “actors” in Syria and may need to stay on as part of a transition.

But in a note of discord, Russia said it was “deeply concerned” at the situation on the border warning of a “further degeneration of the situation”.

 

Assad’s government — which has long has little sway in this region — condemned the incursion as a “flagrant violation” of its sovereignty.

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