On Wednesday the 23 August Turkey initiated its long sought after buffer zone in northeast Syria with a bang. At 4.a.m in artillery rained down on Islamic State (ISIS) positions followed by airstrikes carried out by Turkish F-16’s – marking the first time Turkish warplanes entered Syrian airspace since the Russian warplane incident last year. Then Turkish tanks crossed the border covering the advance of at least 1,500 militiamen, who are fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), to rout the militants out.
This move fulfilled the first step of something Turkey has threatened to do for about five years now: establish a small 70-kilometer wide buffer-zone on the northwestern Syrian border. While circumstances have changed in the last half-a-decade – the buffer zone is no longer primarily aimed, as originally planned, at keeping military forces commanded by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of that region – the parameters of the zone and the basic purpose of it are more-or-less the same. The US has also supported the idea of an ISIS-free zone in northwest Syria for at least a year before this operation, since it has been at war with ISIS in Syria for two years now.
Turkey seeks to keep two enemy forces out of that area, ISIS and Kurdish militia forces (People’s Protection Units; YPG) they say are directly linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The fact that Turkish artillery has also targeted Kurdish forces south of Jarabulus in recent days isn’t surprising. After all, Turkey joined the US-led coalition against ISIS in July 2015, the same month its hostilities against the PKK resumed after a failed ceasefire implemented in early 2013. Also the zone is aimed to be a safe-zone for displaced Syrians to stop more of them pouring into Turkey.
That’s not the only notable thing about it. The zones establishment comes just six weeks after the failed coup attempt of July 15 and the sweeping government crackdown on the military which ensued. Now with greater government control over the military Ankara is finally able to enact what it has long been planning to do.
Time will tell how major this operation will be, how far south the Turkish military will go as part of its efforts to target ISIS and the Kurds. It’s not clear, however, how apt of a demonstration it will be of the power and capability of the Turkish military in the aftermath of the coup. After all, presently it’s limited to a supporting role for the at least 1,500 of the aforementioned fighters backed by armor, artillery and special forces. Turkish air power is also being coordinated with, and complemented by, American coalition air power.
Also with its back to the border the military could rely on being able to bring heavy firepower to bear on enemy forces, since it could resupply relatively easily. ISIS militants didn’t have a fallback position in Jarabulus , nor could its militants be easily resupplied to put up a fight since they were cut off further south, and from their main base in Raqqa, by Kurdish-led forces.
A deeper infiltration of Turkish ground forces into hostile territory would be more informative about the capability of the Turkish armed forces and how much the Turkish public would support, and stomach, it if their soldiers began to suffer combat casualties.While this is the biggest operation into Syria since the war began it’s worth noting that this is not the first time Turkish forces entered Syria from over the border. Since January Turkey has been intermittently bombarding ISIS-territories over the border in retaliation for mortar attacks on its frontier province of Kilis. In early May during one of these operations Turkish special forces did make a brief incursion into Syria against the militants.
Earlier than that in February 2015, a convoy consisting of a reported 572 Turkish soldiers backed up by 39 tanks and 57 armored vehicles also briefly entered Syria to evacuate the 38 Turkish soldiers guarding the Suleyman Shah tomb, and relocate that tomb, which was situated in a Turkish exclave in Syria that was becoming too hard to protect. As with the Jarabulus offensive, Damascus also condemned that move was a violation of Syria’s sovereignty since Turkey did not seek Syria’s permission. Given its present day rapprochement with Russia, Ankara may have tacit acquiescence from the Kremlin for this current operation, provided they do not over-extend too far south of their border.
Whatever the case ultimately proves to be Wednesday’s move is quite a significant development in the tumultuous war in Syria.
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During Wednesday the 23 August, around 20 Turkish tanks and 20 armoured personnel carrier crossed the border to Syria. At least additional 10 tanks crossed the border early on Thursday, 25 August. Meanwhile, a total of 350 soldiers from the Turkish Armed Forces are taking part (some 200 soldiers from mechanized units and 150 Special Forces soldiers).
In an interview broadcast late on Wednesday, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that following the expulsion of IS militia from Jarabulus, Turkey’s military would continue its operation in the region. Now it’s about pushing the Kurdish YPG militia back over the Euphrates river, Yildirim said. “Until that’s achieved, we will continue our operations. Our agreement with the US is that the Kurds from Manbij and the region have to withdraw to the east side of the Euphrates,” he added. (“Turkey rolls on with Syria operation as US confirms retreat of Syrian Kurds“, Deutsche Welle, 25.08.2016). Later that day, YPG declared that they have pulled back from the key town of Manbij and returned to the east of the Euphrates.
This maps by Artur Rosiński show the course of action of the turkish military operation (click on the specific thumbnail to enlarge the map):