Turkey upped the stakes of the already ruinous Syrian conflict after it launched a direct offensive across its southern border, targeted ostensibly at Islamic State positions in the northern Syrian town of Jarabulus. With the support of U.S. forces, Turkish tanks motored into Syrian territory in the early hours of Wednesday, helping Syrian rebels to swiftly recapture an important border town but also adding another layer of complexity to Syria’s deeply complicated war.
The attack led by Turkey which sent troops, tanks and war planes into Syria for the first time in 5 and a half years. The operation also included American advisers who planned it via bases in Turkey. At the same time, they provided the Turks with surveillance and intelligence as well as aerial backing if needed. Ankara labeled the operation Euphrates Shield, a reference to the river that threads through Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
The rebels encountered almost no resistance from Islamic State fighters, who fled ahead of the advancing force, according to rebel commanders in the area.
“There wasn’t much resistance at all from ISIS forces and they retreated even faster after Turkish troops marched across the border,” said Ahmed al-Gader, a rebel fighter speaking from Jarabulus. “We have taken over the main buildings of the town, and things are very quiet now.”
The fact that Coalition Forces took control of Jarabulus is expected to weaken ISIS’s grip along the Turkish-Syrian border. The city was utilized by ISIS to smuggle supplies and members to the murderous terror group. As a result, the operation is expected to loosen their grip on Syria.
The date chosen for the operation, August 24, is of historical significance, because it marks exactly 500 years to the day since Ottoman Sultan Selim I won the decisive Battle of Marj Dabiq, leading to the Ottoman conquest of Syria and much of the rest of the Middle East.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has previously shown his neo-Ottoman ambitions with comments such as, “We were born and raised on the land that is the legacy of the Ottoman Empire. They are our ancestors. It is out of the question that we might deny that presence. Of course, the empire had some beautiful parts and some not so beautiful parts. It’s a very natural right for us to use what was beautiful about the Ottoman Empire today.”
This particular campaign may simply be an effort to cut off Kurdish forces from gaining too much territory thus weakening Kurdish elements in southern Turkey. Erdogan has been engaged in an attempt to crush all dissent among the Kurdish population there, where there is a strong movement for greater regional autonomy.
Turkish officials also made clear that the operation wasn’t simply about targeting the militant group. Ankara has long worried about the advances of Syrian Kurdish militias in northern Syria. The most prominent faction are the People’s Protection Units, or the YPG — key fighters in the ground war against the Islamic State and recipients of American aid, but a group that Turkey sees indelibly linked to outlawed Kurdish insurgents operating within its borders.
When a coalition of rebel units known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes the YPG, captured the northern Syrian town of Manbij this month from the Islamic State, the victory led to scenes of joy among its residents, who had suffered under months of extremist rule. But Turkey wasn’t so thrilled. It considers the YPG crossing over onto the western bank of the Euphrates, where Manbij sits, a “red line.”
On Monday, Turkish forces shelled YPG positions in Manbij. And as the advance toward Jarabalus pressed ahead, Turkey’s foreign minister issued a warning on Twitter to Syrian Kurds there.
Ibrahim Kalin, a senior spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, signaled Turkey’s long-standing argument that the fight against the Islamic State is the same as Ankara’s struggle with Kurdish terrorism.
“The purpose of the Jarabulus operation is to clean up all the terrorist elements including ISIS and YPG,” Kalin tweeted. “Turkey’s determination is whole.”
What happens next in Manbij is as important as what happens after the Turkish-led recapture of Jarabulus. As Syria analyst Hassan Hassan wrote earlier this week, the largely Arab city is a vital testing ground for future reconciliation and unity in war-ravaged Syria.
“Manbij was a key stronghold for ISIS, and a city that can serve as a refuge for the hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing regime violence in Aleppo and ISIS oppression in eastern Syria,” Hassan wrote. “If Manbij is turned into a bastion of good governance, it will be no small success story. Due to its significance, the city’s stability and success will resonate far and wide.”
For the time being, though, it remains yet another hot spot.
Meanwhile China has also entered the fray on the side of the Syrian regime. China sent military advisors to Syria to support the regime’s army and trainers to teach Syrian soldiers how to use Chinese weapons.
China has also opened discussions with Russia and Iran about humanitarian aid and as to whether or not China will regularly deploy military advisers to Syria.
China’s interest in Syria is twofold. First, it wishes to protect itself from terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists in China, where there have been jihadist strikes in the Uighyur province in the West of the country in the past.
Second, China needs regional stability in order to safeguard its titanic “One Belt, One Road” project, which seeks to re-open the ancient silk road, running trade overland from Europe to Asia.
China is investing billions in in modern infrastructure to make global trade along that highway possible and the presence of jihadists and other unstable armed militia groups near the route jeopardize that investment.
China does not seem to mind whether Turkey is Islamist or not, what it cares about is stability and security.
The intervention of both countries marks a serious escalation in the Syrian Civil War.