Isis defeat may lead to buffer zone on Turkey border

Syrian rebels and Turkish forces meet little resistance as they take control of Jarablus

Turkish tanks in Karkamis on the Turkish-Syrian border: the Jarablus operation succeeded in destroying Islamic State’s last major gateway into the country. Photograph: Reuters

Syrian rebels backed by Turkish military forces reached the centre of a major border town held by Islamic State for three years in an unprecedented operation yesterday, which may lay the ground for establishing a controversial secure zone across a part of northern Syria.

Turkey’s state news agency said ground forces and rebels deployed about 20 tanks and more than a dozen armoured vehicles backed by F16 fighter jets early yesterday morning, and met little resistance before taking Jarablus town centre by 7pm local time (5pm Irish time).

With Turkish support, the rebels may now seek to create a buffer zone along the border to maintain access to Turkey, which would also serve to deny border access to Islamic State, also known as Isis, and Kurdish militias.

The swift fall of Jarablus may also set off a race between Syrian rebels and Kurdish militias for control of other Isis-controlled towns in the north, including al-Bab, should the terrorist group decide to fall back to its so-called capital in Raqqa, 160km to the south.


For the constellation of international interests in Syria's war, the events mark a potentially significant new chapter for control of the war-torn north. Russia, which supports the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, said it was "worried" by the situation.

Over the past 12 months Turkey has suffered hundreds of civilian deaths and seen its economy damaged as a result of bomb attacks by Islamic State. The Jarablus operation succeeded in destroying the jihadi group’s last major gateway into the country.

"Right now, unfortunately, all the attacks which happened in Gaziantep and Kilis . . . brought this issue to this point," Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. "This is the end. We said it needed to be finished and the process has started . . . We have to solve the problem."

Rebel groups

Damascus, which has clashed with


since the early stages of Syria’s 2011 popular uprising over Turkey’s backing of rebel groups – forces it regards as terrorists – called the Jarablus operation a breach of its sovereignty.

“What is happening in Jarablus now isn’t fighting terrorism as Turkey claims; rather it is replacing one type of terrorism with another,” an unnamed Syrian official quoted by the state news agency Sana said.

Ankara initially said the Jarablus operation was to remove Islamic State from its border areas. Within hours, however, officials made statements vowing to also stop powerful Syrian Kurdish groups including the People’s Protection Units or YPG from taking control of Jarablus.

The Kurds are set on establishing a federal authority in northern Syria, something Ankara fears would greatly help the PKK, a Turkish separatist group it is battling at home.

Kurdish groups have taken control of a vast stretch of territory ranging east of Jarablus along the Euphrates to the Iraqi border. Pointedly, Turkey titled the operation “Euphrates Shield”, in a direct reference to the fact Ankara has long viewed Kurdish presence west of the Euphrates river as a “red line”.

Major setback

Recent months have seen Kurds drive Islamic State out of towns and villages to the east and south of Jarablus, most crucially in


, a strategic town 30km to the south that stands as an important route to


. Turkey has even gone as far as shelling Kurdish forces north of Manbij days after the militias took over the town from Isis this month in a major setback to the jihadis.

Within hours of the launch of the Jarablus operation the co-president of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political front of the YPG, warned Turkey that its new intervention would see it defeated in "the Syrian quagmire".

The US, Turkey's ally and a key Nato partner in the fight against Islamic State, has been working with the YPG in other areas of northern Syria, which is seen as the most organised opposition force in the war against both Isis and Syrian government forces.

However, meeting Turkish leaders in Ankara yesterday, US vice-president Joe Biden warned Kurdish militias not to cross the Euphrates.

“They must move back across the river . . . they cannot – will not – under any circumstance get American support if they do not keep that commitment,” he said.

Suicide bombings

Turkey’s incursion into Syria may also potentially drive a wedge between rebel groups and the Kurds – ostensible partners in the war against the Syrian regime and Isis.

The Jarablus operation may now see Turkey further targeted by Isis cells embedded around the country. A string of recent deadly suicide bombings and attacks at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport and in the south have brought into focus the domestic threat facing Turkey, which shares a 900km border with Syria.