Turkey turns on Islamic State while blocking Kurds in Syria
Incursion prevents Kurds from uniting and pushes jihadists from border areas
Turkish troops on the road near the Syrian village of Tuwairan, about 2km from the border with Turkey, on Monday. Photograph: Nazeer al-Khatib/AFP/Getty Images
Turkey’s cross-border incursions into Syria have achieved Ankara’s primary objective of preventing Syrian Kurds from uniting the eastern end of their enclave south of the border with the western sector.
Turkish tanks, special forces and insurgent clients have seized a 91km belt of territory, 3-4km deep, running from Jarablus to Azaz. Turkish forces have also sent a probe at least 39km into Syrian territory, perhaps with the intention of taking al-Bab.
Al-Bab, northeast of Aleppo, is a key objective of the US-backed, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, which last month drove Islamic State out of the strategic town of Manbij after a hard-fought battle.
As soon at they crossed the border, Turkish troops and planes attacked the Kurdish forces and ordered them to pull out of Manbij and withdraw to territory west of the Euphrates river. The Kurds, however, have local supporters in both Manbij and Jarablus.
Turkey’s secondary aim was to drive Islamic State (also known as Isis) from the border zone and cut off its capital, Raqqa, as well as other towns and villages it holds, from the Turkish supply route that has kept the conflict going.
It is significant that Islamic State’s fighters did not attempt to defend themselves from the Turkish onslaught, as they had during the Kurdish offensives.
The Turkish occupation of this strip of territory could become an existential threat to the Islamists if the Turks cut off total access to fighters and supplies.
Turkish public opinion also compelled the government to act after last month’s major suicide bombing that killed 54 in Gaziantep.
This operation was the latest in a series of deadly strikes in Turkey, demonstrating the terror group was not prepared to refrain from attacking a key sponsor.
The beneficiaries of the Turkish pivot are Syrian clients from groups associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and ethnic Turk (Turkmen) Sultan Murat brigades, both established by Ankara, as well as the moderate fundamentalist Faylaq al-Sham and hardline Ansar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zenki.
The latter two are allied closely with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), al-Qaeda’s official Syrian offshoot, the main component of the coalition ruling Syria’s northwestern Idlib province.
Turkey seeks to unify these groups in a single force under the FSA logo. Most of their fighters are not “moderates” or jihadists but takfiris, Muslims of a radical persuasion who accuse Muslims who disagree with them of apostasy and people of other faiths of heresy.
Like Islamic State, takfiris seek to impose their reactionary ideology, derived from Saudi Wahhabism, and conservative social controls over “Sham” – greater Syria comprising Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere.
South of Aleppo city, government forces have taken territory lost to Ahrar al-Sham and allies in mid-August and have reimposed a full siege on eastern insurgent-held quarters.
Government negotiators have also secured a truce in Muadamiya, suburb of Damascus, and are negotiating over the al-Waer suburb of Homs.
Talks between Washington and Moscow have stalled as the American plan, according to US sources, demands that Russia and the Syrian government halt attacks on insurgent areas without the certainty of reciprocity.
The US has pledged to include Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (ex-Nusra) in bombings along with Islamic State once Russia persuades Damascus to agree.