08/24/2016, 17.51

Turkey invades Jarablus: under the pretext of fighting IS, Ankara is going after the Kurds

Pierre Balanian

Tanks have invaded the town across the border, in Syrian territory. Ankara "wants to hit Islamic state militants" but jihadists have already left the area. The Turkish goal is Syria’s Kurds to block the emergence of an autonomous enclave. A game of alliances is being played with the US and Turkey in a tug-of-war.

Jarablus (AsiaNews) – The Turkish army invaded the city of Jarablus, just across the border in Syrian territory.

Turkish forces surrounded the area to attack Islamic State (IS) fighters. However, local sources report that jihadists have already fled the city, and that scores of civilians have been killed during the shelling and air strikes that preceded the invasion, with corpses abandoned by the roadside.

Interviewed by an Arab TV, a Jarablus resident called Sabri Osman said that "only 13 members of Daesh are still present" in the city. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

As the Turkish invasion continues, the northern part of the city has been destroyed. Local sources explain that Turkish tanks entered from the west and from the north and surrounded the area.

The Turkish invasion is almost complete. The shelling of the past few hours, the sources said, were "make believe" because most of the jihadists "had already escaped."

In the early hours of this morning, in response to yesterday’s Turkish bombardment, some rockets were fired from Jarablus in the direction of the border where they hit the Turkish village of Karkamish. However, Ankara has ordered the complete evacuation of the inhabitants of Karkamish and six other neighbouring villages.

Karkamish hosts a base for anti-Syrian government militias. Through a secret route through the Turkish border, men and weapons are getting through in preparation for today’s ground attack against Daesh in Jarablus.

A race is on to see who will occupy Jarablus first and push out Daesh militias that controlled the city until recently with Turkish protection. i.e. until just before the failed coup against Erdogan.

Many have their eyes on the city: Syrian Kurds, assisted by US experts, the so-called Free Syrian Army (Free Syrian Army, made up of militias organised by Turkey, and not former regular Syrian soldiers) and the Syrian army. Now turkey has joined the fray.

As Daesh’s defeat appears imminent in Jarablus, its last stronghold on the Syrian-Turkish border, the issue is when and by who.

Jihadi websites are reporting fierce resistance to the bitter end, but local residents are saying that the Caliphate fighters have left Jarablus itself and redeployed around the city.

According to reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the families of Daesh fighters have already moved out of town and are now in El Bab, near Raqqa, the capital of the “Caliphate”.

Sources in Beirut told AsiaNews that yesterday 15 US military experts travelled to the city’s demarcation lines to study the territory from Zor Mghar to the village of Shuyukh, to the west, in order to secure the frontline in the battle zone. The land battle is imminent.

Before the war, about 100,000 people lived in Jarablus, 80 per cent Arabs, 10 per cent Turkmen, 5 per cent Armenian Christians and 5 per cent Kurds (the last Christian, an Armenian Orthodox man, was killed by Daesh last year).

After the city fell to the Islamic State in 2014, most of the residents left, with only 4,500 left ruled by 40 Daesh chiefs.

Turkey is deeply concerned that Jarablus could fall under the control of Syrian Kurds. The city is the last missing piece to complete a would-be Kurdish autonomous region in Syria, with US support, according to the Turkish press.

In fact, the Turkish government is less interested in fighting Daesh than in preventing the Kurds from occupying the area and for that reason it supports the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The latter includes some 400 fighters from Failaq El Sham, Liwaa al Sultan Murad (Sultan Murat Unit), Harakat, Nur el Din Zinki and Ahrar Al Sham (Free Damascus). All share the FSA label.

Daesh fighters in Jarablus are composed of two groups.

One group that operates under the command of the Turkish secret services, the so-called Euphrates United Groups Command, which is part of the FSA, led by Yussef Al Hader, a regular Syrian army colonel who had defected, and was killed by the FSA at the infantry academy in Aleppo.

A second group of fighters that broke away from the first because it was too dependent on Turkey joined the Kassad armed group under the leadership of Abdel Sattar Al Jader.

Chosen on Monday by the Jarablus Military Council, Abdel Sattar Al Jader was murdered in mysterious circumstances a few hours after issuing a statement in which he called for the protection of the area from Turkish interference. He had accused Turkey of sending many Daesh members to Jarablus in recent days through various routes from Turkey.

The Battle of Jarablus will not be just a matter of territorial control but will also be a real tug of war between the US and Turkey. The US planes have been bombing Daesh positions in Jarablus, but according to Kurdish sources in Beirut, the United States could also hit fighters with the so-called Free Syrian Army.

The battle has begun, and the alliances are changing.

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