Turkish tanks and hundreds of opposition fighters thrust deep inside Syrian territory Wednesday in a lightning operation that within hours ousted Islamic State jihadists 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 Jarablus, with rebel fighters already proclaiming victory by the late afternoon, just 14 hours after it started.
“Jarablus is completely liberated,” Ahmad Othman, commander of the Sultan Mourad rebel group, told AFP from the scene, while another rebel spokesman said IS fighters had fled towards Al-Bab to the southwest.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan emphasized the operation was also targeting Kurdish militia fighters strongly opposed by Ankara — but backed by the US as a key ally against IS — who had also been closing in on Jarablus.
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.
The operation — named “Euphrates Shield” — began at around 4:00 a.m. with Turkish artillery pounding dozens of IS targets around Jarablus.
Turkish F-16 fighter jets, backed by US-led coalition war planes, also hit targets inside Syria.
A dozen Turkish tanks then rolled into Syria in support of Syrian opposition fighters who had also crossed, with 1,500 of them now in the area according to state media.
The rapidity of the advance was stunning and in complete contrast to the long-grinding battles where Kurdish forces had taken towns in northern Syria like Kobane and Manbij from IS.
The effects of one air raid on the northern outskirts of Jarablus were easily visible, sending up a cloud of black smoke and sand.
Turkey wants to show it is serious about taking on IS, 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 was long accused of turning a blind eye to the rise of IS 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.