urkey’s ground incursion into northern Syria, which Ankara claims is mainly aimed at fighting Daesh, had been in the making for over two years, a Turkish official has said.
The so-called Operation Euphrates Shield began on Wednesday featuring Turkish warplanes and special ground forces to rid the border area of Daesh terrorists and Kurdish forces, according to Ankara.
On Friday, Turkey sent four more tanks across the border into the Syrian city of Jarabulus where the sound of explosions rang out.
The offensive was launched in coordination with the US, which has been purportedly fighting the Takfiri terror group since 2014.
The Turkish government had “been working on a ground incursion for more than two years” which was “delayed” by several factors, the official told the French news agency AFP on Thursday.
Ankara had discussed the intervention plan with the US last June, according to the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
This picture taken around 5 kilometers west from the Turkish border city of Karkamis in the southern region of Gaziantep, on August 25, 2016 shows Turkish army soldiers standing next to tanks. ©AFP
The official said the US-backed operation had also been delayed by elements in the Turkish army who staged a failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government on July 15.
Also hindering the operation, the source said, was the souring of Russo-Turkish relations after Ankara’s military downed Moscow’s jet over Syria last year.
The risk of a further confrontation with Moscow put an end to all Turkish air operations over Syria that would have been essential for any ground operation, the official said.
“It became practically impossible to implement our plans due to a lack of air cover.”
Erdogan, however, recently met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow, and called for a “clean slate” in the bilateral ties.
15,000 Turkish troops in Syria?
Turkish troops ostensibly hunting Daesh militants stand accused of helping Takfiri groups, giving them free passage into Syria and out of the Arab country.
On Thursday, Turkey shelled Kurdish militia fighters in Syria on the second day of its incursion and sent a fresh contingent of tanks into the Syrian territory.
Hundreds of Syrian militants, backed by Turkish tanks, war planes and special forces, took the Syrian town of Jarabulus on Thursday.
The Hurriyet daily’s columnist Abdulkadir Selvi said 450 members of the Turkish military had been on the ground on the first day of the incursion but this number could rise to 15,000.
Turkey’s Defense Minister Fikri Isik warned Kurdish militants in Syria to move back east across the Euphrates or also face action.
Turkey sees Syrian Kurdish militia as terror groups bent on carving out an autonomous region in Syria and acting as the Syrian branch of its own outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The militants who seized Jarabulus aim to move westward in the next phase of their Turkish-backed operation, their commander told the Reuters news agency.
Ahmad Osman, head of the Sultan Murad group, said the militants did not wish to fight Kurdish forces that have advanced in northern Syria, but would do so if necessary.
The militant commander said the priority was now to advance some 70 km (40 miles) westward to Mare’ and capture all the villages between the town and Jarabulus. The operation, he said, could take weeks or months to complete.
The militant group is fighting under the banner of the so-called Free Syrian Army which has received varying degrees of help from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s foreign enemies, including military aid and training.
Osman said the US was keen to provide air support for the Turkish-led operation. Turkish-backed militant groups have also advanced southward from Jarablus toward the city of Manbij, which was captured by Kurdish militants earlier this month.
Kurdish militants crossed the Euphrates river in order to attack Manbij. Turkey has demanded they now go back across the river.