Turkish special forces, tanks and jets backed by planes from the U.S.-led coalition launched their first co-ordinated offensive into Syria on Wednesday to try to drive Islamic State from the border and prevent further gains by Kurdish militia fighters, Reuters has reported.
Turkish tank units and Syrian rebels backed by the NATO member crossed into northern Syria to push Islamic State out of the border town of Jarablus, military sources said. A Reuters reporter at the border counted six Turkish tanks inside Syria and witnessed intense bombardments, according to Reuters.
Turkey`s President Tayyip Erdogan said the operation was targeting Islamic State and the Kurdish PYD party, whose gains in northern Syria have alarmed Turkey. Ankara views the PYD as an extension of Kurdish militants fighting an insurgency on its own soil, putting it at odds with Washington, which sees the group as an ally in the fight against Islamic State.
”This morning at 04 a.m. (01:00 GMT) an operation started in northern Syria against terror groups which constantly threaten our country, like Daesh (Islamic State) and the PYD,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Turkey hours after operations began on a pre-planned trip, the most senior U.S. official to visit since a failed July 15 coup shook confidence in Turkey`s ability to step up the fight against Islamic State.
”Euphrates Shield”, named after the river running nearby, is Turkey`s first major military operation since the abortive coup.
The offensive comes four days after a suicide bomber suspected of links to the group killed 54 people at a wedding in the southeastern city of Gaziantep.
Syria`s foreign ministry condemned what it said was a breach of its sovereignty and accused Ankara of launching the incursion to replace Islamic State with ”other terrorist groups”.
A senior U.S. official traveling with Biden said the United States wanted to help Turkey to get Islamic State away from the border, and was providing air cover and ”synching up” with the Turks on their plans for Jarablus. The shelling was hitting Islamic State, not Kurdish forces, he said.
Biden`s visit comes at a testing time for Turkish-U.S. relations. Turkey says the failed putsch was staged by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania for the past 17 years.
Erdogan wants Gulen extradited but Washington says it needs clear evidence of his alleged involvement, sparking an outpouring of anti-Americanism from Turkey`s pro-government media. Gulen denies any involvement in the attempted coup.