Turkish tanks and hundreds of opposition fighters thrust deep inside Syrian territory Wednesday in a lightning operation that within hours ousted Islamic State jihadists from a key Syrian border town.
The air and ground offensive — the most ambitious launched by Ankara in the Syria conflict — made rapid progress towards Jarablus, with rebel fighters already proclaiming victory by the late afternoon, just 14 hours after it started.
“Jarablus is completely liberated,” Ahmad Othman, commander of the Sultan Mourad rebel group, told AFP from the scene, while another rebel spokesman said IS fighters had fled towards Al-Bab to the southwest.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan emphasized the operation was also targeting Kurdish militia fighters strongly opposed by Ankara — but backed by the US as a key ally against IS — who had also been closing in on Jarablus.
But visiting US Vice President Joe Biden reassured Turkey that Washington had told the Kurdish fighters under no circumstances to cross west of the Euphrates River or face the total loss of American support.
The operation — named “Euphrates Shield” — began at around 4:00 a.m. with Turkish artillery pounding dozens of IS targets around Jarablus.
Turkish F-16 fighter jets, backed by US-led coalition war planes, also hit targets inside Syria.
A dozen Turkish tanks then rolled into Syria in support of Syrian opposition fighters who had also crossed, with 1,500 of them now in the area according to state media.
The rapidity of the advance was stunning and in complete contrast to the long-grinding battles where Kurdish forces had taken towns in northern Syria like Kobane and Manbij from IS.
As well as tanks, an AFP photographer in the area of Karkamis opposite Jarablus saw several smaller military vehicles believed to be carrying the pro-Ankara Syrian rebels.
Security sources quoted by Turkish television said a small contingent of special forces had traveled into Syria to secure the area before the larger ground operation.
A US defense official said that American planes were conducting airstrikes as part of the ongoing operation to drive Islamic State militants from Jarablus.
The official said US A-10 and F-16 fighter jets were participating in the cross-border operation.
The US was also providing assistance with intelligence and surveillance aircraft overhead.
The effects of one air raid on the northern outskirts of Jarablus were easily visible, sending up a cloud of black smoke and sand.
Turkey wants to show it is serious about taking on IS, which has been blamed for a string of attacks inside the country — the latest a weekend attack on a Kurdish wedding in Gaziantep that left 54 people dead, many of them children.
Ankara was long accused of turning a blind eye to the rise of IS in Syria and even aiding its movements to-and-fro across the border, claims the government had always vehemently denied.
Turkey has long been alarmed about the activities inside Syria of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which Washington sees as an ally but Ankara regards as a terror group.
But Biden on Wednesday said Washington had made clear to pro-Kurdish forces in Syria that they must not cross west of the Euphrates River.
“They cannot, will not and under no circumstances (will) get American support if they do not keep that commitment. Period,” he said.
Saleh Moslem, head of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the YPG’s political wing, tweeted that Turkey was now in the “Syrian quagmire” and would be “defeated” like IS.
But a senior US administration official said Washington had already been “syncing up” with Turkey for the operation and US advisers had been in a planning cell.
Erdogan said the operation was aimed against both IS and PYD — “terror groups that continuously threaten our country in northern Syria”.
“We have said ‘enough is enough’… This now needs to be resolved,” he said.
The Turkish air strikes were the first since a November crisis with Russia sparked when the Turkish air force downed one of Moscow’s warplanes.
A dozen IS targets were destroyed in Wednesday’s air strikes. Turkish artillery meanwhile destroyed 70 IS targets, according to Turkish television.
The movements have come at a critical juncture for Turkey in Syria’s five-and-a-half-year war, with signs growing it is on the verge of a landmark policy shift.
Ankara has always called for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, putting Turkey at odds with his main supporters Iran and Russia.
However Prime Minister Binali Yildirim acknowledged at the weekend for the first time that Assad was one of the “actors” in Syria and may need to stay on as part of a transition.
But in a note of discord, Russia said it was “deeply concerned” at the situation on the border warning of a “further degeneration of the situation”.
Assad’s government — which has long has little sway in this region — condemned the incursion as a “flagrant violation” of its sovereignty.
AP contributed to this report.