Syria war: Kurds pull back in north as Turkish tanks cross border in offensive against Isis

Turkey aims to fight Isis and contain the expansion of Kurdish groups in Syria

Samuel Osborne
Thursday 25 August 2016 14:05 BST
Video shows tanks on the Turkey/Syria border

Kurdish forces in Syria have started withdrawing east of the Euphrates River, after more than 20 Turkish tanks crossed the border to help Syrian rebels take a key Isis stronghold.

Turkish tanks crossed into Syria as part of a huge operation to retake the city of Jarablus from Isis on Wednesday, with assistance from US fighter jets.

The incursion represents a dramatic escalation of Turkey's role in the Syrian civil war.

However, Ankara's objective goes beyond fighting extremists, it is also aiming to contain the expansion of Kurdish groups in Syria, who are backed by the US-led coalition.

Syrian rebels and Turkish tanks 'seize' ISIL-held town

US Vice President Joe Biden flew into Ankara hours after the offensive was launched and backed Turkey, issuing a stern warning to the Kurds to stay east of the Euphrates, which crosses from Turkey into Syria at Jarabulus.

Kurdish forces “must move back across the Euphrates River. They cannot, will not, under any circumstance get American support if they do not keep that commitment,” Mr Biden said.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a predominantly Kurdish alliance backed by the US-led coalition, had advanced to within a mile of Jarabulus after driving Isis from swathes of northern Syria in recent months.

But Turkey has been concerned by the group's success, which has seen Kurdish groups including the People's Protection Units (YPG) take control of land stretching almost the entire length of the Syrian border.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the fighters "terrorists" and linked them to the separatist PKK group, which is fighting an insurgency in south-east Turkey.

“Whether it's Daesh or the YPG, they are all terrorist organisations,” he said on Wednesday, using the Arabic acronym for Isis.

“A terrorist organisation fighting another terrorist organisation doesn't make it innocent.”

The situation in Jarabulus early on 25 August, with Turkish-backed territory and operations shown in blue, Isis in black, and the Syrian Democratic Forces in yellow 

 The situation in Jarabulus early on 25 August, with Turkish-backed territory and operations shown in blue, Isis in black, and the Syrian Democratic Forces in yellow 

US Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed that Kurdish forces “were in the process of retreating east of the Euphrates,” according to Turkish officials.

It is unclear whether the Turkey-backed rebels who seized Jarabulus will move against Isis-held towns or nearby Kurdish-controlled areas, including the town of Manbij, which Kurdish forces liberated from Isis earlier this month.

Manbij lies west of the Eurphrates and Ankara has demanded the Kurds hand it over to Syrian rebels and withdraw.

Turkey's Defense Minister Fikri Isik said the operation has two main goals: to secure the Turkish border and to make sure the Kurdish forces in Syria “are not there”.

American warplanes have supported the Turkish offensive, codenamed Euphrates Shield, with air strikes, but other members of the international coalition have made no move to lend their support.

“I think the Turks are prepared to stay in an effort to take out Isil as long as it takes,” Mr Biden said, a day after meeting Turkey’s president.

“I think there has been a gradual mind shift ... in Turkey, with the realisation that Isil is an existential threat to Turkey.”

Turkey's assault came four days after a suicide bombing blamed on Isis killed 54 people at a wedding in the south-eastern city of Gaziantep.

A senior Turkish official told reporters that operations would continue until “we are convinced” imminent threats to Turkey are neutralised.

He said the aim is to create a “terror-free zone” in northern Syria to prevent militants from entering Turkey.

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