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Turkey's celebrates Syria intervention

Tom Stevenson, IstanbulAugust 25, 2016

Ankara's incursion into northern Syria to seize the border town of Jarabulus from Islamic State is being held up by Turkish officials, but critics question the government's motives. Tom Stevenson reports from Istanbul.

Syrien Krieg - Türkei Offensive gegen IS in Dscharabulus
Image: Getty Images/AFP/B. Kilic

Turkish government officials praised the Turkish army's successful operation to take control of the northern Syrian town of Jarabulus on Wednesday - Turkey's first direct foray into the Syrian conflict - in no uncertain terms.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim described the US-backed operation, which saw Jarabulus captured with little fighting and no Turkish casualties, as evidence of Turkey taking action over Syria in contrast to the West's dithering inaction.

"They are just competing with each other instead of solving the problem. Then, who pays the price? The displaced and killed civilians and Turkey pay the price," Yildirim said.

On Thursday Turkey's special forces commander, Lieutenant General Zekai Aksakalli, was photographed in Jarabulus celebrating the operations. Turkey's EU affairs minister Omer Celik claimed the move was essential to European security.

The pro-government Turkish press celebrated the operation across the board. The "Daily Sabah" newspaper, which is owned by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's family, described the operation in an editorial as "nothing but an act of self-defense."

The chief commentator of the pro-government daily "Yeni Safak," Ibrahim Karagul, who is known to be close to President Erdogan, said the operation would "move the stones and change the power map; not only in Syria but in the entire region."

"Those who resisted the July 15 coup and civil war attempt are today resisting the siege in the South... The struggle in Istanbul and the struggle in Jarabulus are no different," Karagul wrote. "This operation is enthusiastically supported by the entire country. Turkey is advancing and IS and the [Kurdish Democratic Union Party] are withdrawing. They are going to withdraw even further.”

Who is Turkey working with?

But not everyone agrees with Turkey entering the Syrian conflict.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main Syrian Kurdish political party, strongly criticized Turkey's intervention, accusing Turkey of acting to stop Kurdish gains in northern Syria rather than to combat the Islamic State.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the Republic People's Party (CHP), Turkey's main opposition party, expressed skepticism about the Jarabulus operation. "We do not agree with hosting foreign armed forces in Turkey and then sending them into another country," Kilicdaroglu said on August 24.

Syrien Krieg - Türkei Offensive gegen IS in Dscharabulus
The Turkish government says it will continue to operate in northern Syria after capturing JarabulusImage: Getty Images/AFP/B. Kilic

Turkey hosted and supported 1,500 Syrian rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) for the Jarabulus operation, and handed control of the city to those forces.

While US-backed militias such as the Suqour al-Jebal Brigade were involved, the Turkish-backed force also included Islamist fighters from the Failaq al-Sham and Jabha al-Shamiya groups, and fighters from Islamist groups like Ahrar al-Sham with links to al Qaeda.

The force also included the Nour el-Din el Zinki, whose fighters were filmed last month beheading a child, and have been accused of abducting and torturing aid workers in Syria.

"Ahrar al-Sham has regularly allied with al Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front (now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) and has some personal and ideological links with Nusra," said Sam Heller, a non-resident fellow with The Century Foundation. "Yet it also diverges from Nusra in important respects, and those sorts of tangled-up personal and familial ties exist across the spectrum of the Syrian opposition."

"There are probably reasons for international concern, including the possibility that Turkish-backed rebels will turn south and open a new front with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces around Manbij," Heller told DW.

Where next for Turkey in Syria?

The Turkish government says it will continue to operate in northern Syria to secure Turkey's borders, and that it aims to create a "terror free zone" by permanently stopping the influx of foreign fighters.

"Turkey will continue operations until we are convinced that imminent threats against the country's national security have been neutralized," a senior Turkish official told DW.

The Turkish-backed forces say their next goal will be to connect Jarabulus with the town of al-Rai, further west, and then proceed to capture al-Bab. The town is currently held by Islamic State forces and unlike Jarabulus is well fortified; Syrian Kurdish fighters are also known to want to assault the city as part of their long term plan to create an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria.

"The FSA leads the charge against the terrorists in northern Syria. Turkey's main role has been to facilitate FSA advances," the Turkish official said.