Turkey has launched a military intervention to clear ISIS from the border region around the city of Jarablus in northern Syria. Dubbed “Operation Euphrates Shield” 3000–5000 FSA fighters have entered Syria along with a 25 tanks, multiple IFVs, and Turkish special forces troops.
The ground incursion follows hours of bombardment by Turkish artillery and fighter jets which are still striking ISIS positions in area. Warplanes from the U.S-led coalition have also been carrying out airstrikes and the U.S has committed to support the operation from the air as it continues.
Turkey’s interests in Syria are varied. Aside from the removal of Assad, one of Turkey’s main goals in Syria is to prevent the formation of a self-governing Kurdish entity on the border in Syria. While the U.S has backed the YPG/SDF against ISIS, Turkey still views them as an offshoot of the PKK, a Kurdish political party and insurgent group that they have been fighting for decades.
In the previous months the SDF has been quickly taking ground against ISIS in northern Syria with the help of U.S air power. Fresh from their victory against ISIS at Manbij the prospect that they could link their eastern territories with the enclave around Afrin is increasing by the day.
The Turkish assault against ISIS in Jarablus then, is widely seen as a ploy to prevent the SDF from taking the city first and denying the Kurds the ability to unify the Kurdish regions of Syria and create an independent state on Turkey’s southern border.
So far Turkey has committed to securing a 70 km line between Marea (north of Aleppo) and Jarablus. Assaults on SDF positions can’t be ruled out though. Already, clashes have broken out between the Turkish backed FSA with Turkish tanks firing on SDF fighters. The name of the operation also seems to hint at Turkey’s intention to push the Kurds across the Euphrates.
Erdogen has promised to target the YPG* and has threatened them with direct action if they refuse to withdraw to the western side of the Euphrates. The threat seems to have works as the YPG announced that they will pull back** from the western side of the Euphrates but the remaining SDF elements have stated that they will remain. Whether this will be enough to satisfy the Turks is unknown, but it’s clear the YPG do not want to fight the Turkish army directly or lose U.S support.
The question now is, how far will this intervention go? With the SDF marching toward the city of Al-Bab, the prospect of unifying the Kurdish territories still exists, even without direct YPG involvement.
From a military standpoint Al-Bab is a major junction in the area that links Manbij with Aleppo via the M4 and 212 highways. It also links the two Kurdish territorial blocks through a series of minor roads. If Al-Bab is captured by the YPG it will allow the flow of men and material through the Kurdish territories from Afrin to the Iraqi border.
If Turkey intends to stop the spread of the SDF’s territory then capturing Al-Bab will be necessary. There is also the possibility that today’s clashes along the front with the SDF foreshadow a larger offensive against them. If so, the line the Turks are drawing may be as deep as it is wide and could stretch to Manbij.
*The YPG is a component faction of the SDF
**UPDATE: Now getting reports from the YPG spokesman that they will not pull out.