Turkey troops help pry Syr­ian prize from ISIS

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Erin Cun­ning­ham, Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly

ISTANBUL — Turk­ish troops and tanks crossed into Syria on Wed­nes­day in sup­port of a new U.S.backed of­fen­sive against Is­lamic State, help­ing Syr­ian rebels to swiftly re­cap­ture an im­por­tant Is­lamic State bor­der town but also adding a new layer of com­plex­ity to Syria’s al­ready deeply com­pli­cated war.

By late af­ter­noon, rebel units with the Free Syr­ian Army had swept into the cen­ter of the Syr­ian bor­der town of Jarablus, Is­lamic State’s last foothold on the Turk­ish bor­der.

The rebels en­coun­tered al­most no re­sis­tance from Is­lamic State fight­ers, who fled ahead of the ad­vanc­ing force, ac­cord­ing to rebel com­man­ders in the area. Pho­to­graphs posted on so­cial me­dia showed rebels posing in front of de­serted gov­ern­ment build­ings in the town’s cen­tral square and rais­ing the flags of Turkey and the Free Syr­ian Army over the gates to the town.

“There wasn’t much re­sis­tance at all from ISIS forces and they re­treated even faster af­ter Turk­ish troops marched across the bor­der,” said rebel fighter Ahmed al-Gader, us­ing an acro­nym for Is­lamic State. “We have taken over the main build­ings of the town, and things are very quiet now.”

The of­fen­sive co­in­cided with a cru­cial visit to Ankara by Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den and seemed timed to demon­strate that Turkey and the United States re­main close al­lies in the war against Is­lamic State, de­spite the ten­sions that have erupted in their re­la­tion­ship since last month’s failed coup.

But the move also drew con­dem­na­tions from the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, Rus­sia and the Syr­ian Kurds, who un­til now have been re­garded as the United States’ most re­li­able and ef­fec­tive part­ner in the war against Is­lamic State but now risk be­ing usurped by their arch­en­emy, Turkey.

The of­fen­sive was spear­headed by Turkey, which sent tanks, troops and warplanes into Syria for the first time in the coun­try’s fiveyear-old war to help a force es­ti­mated to com­prise be­tween 1,000 and 1,500 Syr­ian rebels.

U.S. ad­vis­ers as­sisted the op­er­a­tion from in­side Turkey, while U.S. warplanes con­ducted airstrikes along­side Turk­ish ones in sup­port of the of­fen­sive, ac­cord­ing to U.S. of­fi­cials.

Jarablus was the last of the many Syr­ian-Turk­ish bor­der cross­ings once con­trolled by Is­lamic State, and its loss will sig­nif­i­cantly cur­tail the flow of for­eign fight­ers and sup­plies to its ter­ri­to­ries else­where, in­clud­ing its self-styled cap­i­tal of Raqqa, said U.S. mil­i­tary spokesman Col. John Dor­rian.

The re­cap­ture of Jarab­u­lus is just the lat­est in an ex­pand­ing list of de­feats in­flicted on the mil­i­tants, and their fail­ure to de­fend it il­lus­trates Is­lamic State’s dwin­dling ca­pac­ity to put up a fight, he added.

The pres­ence of Turk­ish troops in Syria will also, how­ever, raise the stakes in Syria’s war, re­cal­i­brat­ing the bat­tle­field in north­ern Syria and po­ten­tially push­ing Turkey closer to­ward con­flict with the U.S.-backed Syr­ian Kurds bat­tling Is­lamic State in the area.

The Turk­ish de­ploy­ment prompted an an­gry re­sponse from the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment, which con­demned the pres­ence of Turk­ish troops as a “bla­tant vi­o­la­tion” of Syr­ian sovereignty.

AP

Turk­ish forces hold po­si­tions Wed­nes­day in Karkamis, Turkey, near the Syr­ian bor­der.

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