ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey said Monday the Syrian border region must be “completely cleansed” from the Islamic State group, after a weekend suicide bombing in Gaziantep blamed on the jihadists left at least 54 dead.
In a sign of a key battle to come, Syrian rebel fighters have amassed on the Turkish side of the border in preparation for an offensive on the town of Jarablus, IS’s last major transit point on the Syrian side of the border.
“Our border must be completely cleansed from Daesh,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in televised remarks, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
“It is our most natural right to fight at home and abroad against such a terrorist organization.”
A child suicide bomber, aged “between 12 and 14,” is suspected of having carried out the attack late Saturday in the southeastern city of Gaziantep near the Syrian border on the orders of the IS jihadist group, according to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Cavusoglu said Turkey has already taken an “active” role in the fight against IS, allowing coalition forces to use a key air base in the south of the country for strikes on the extremist group.
Quoting security sources, some Turkish media reported earlier that the Gaziantep attack could have been retaliation by IS for an operation carried out by Ankara-backed Syrian rebels against the jihadists in Jarablus, northern Syria.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “hundreds of rebel fighters are inside Turkish territory, preparing to launch an offensive on Jarablus against IS.”
“There is already daily artillery fire from Turkey on the edges of the town,” said the Britain-based monitoring group’s head, Rami Abdel Rahman.
The Dogan news agency reported that Turkish artillery fired 65 mortar shells at IS targets around Jarablus on Saturday.
A rebel source confirmed that opposition fighters were “preparing for a large offensive against Daesh in Jarablus which will be launched from Turkey.”
“Yesterday we liberated Al-Rai, and tomorrow, Jarablus,” said Ahmad Othman, a commander in the Sultan Murad rebel group.
Al-Rai was also used by IS as a smaller transit point along the border, but was it seized by rebels on Friday after changing hands several times.
Jarablus has been held by IS for more than three years.
Mohammad al-Ahmad, spokesman for the Jabha Shamiya (Levant Front) rebel group, said the assault was aimed at pushing IS out of the town but also preventing the rival Syrian Democratic Forces from reaching it.
The US-backed SDF, comprising Kurdish and Arab fighters, scored a major victory against IS in early August in Manbij, a key stop along the jihadist supply route via Jarablus.
In a statement distributed to journalists on Sunday, the SDF accused Turkey of dispatching “a large number of mercenaries (into Syria) to occupy Jarablus.”
Asked if the government supported the operation against the town, Cavusoglu said: “We can back anyone, especially the moderate opposition fighting against Daesh on the ground.”
“We will fight Daesh to the end and continue to support countries and forces fighting them,” he added, without giving further details.
Cavusoglu said Turkey was a “prime target of Daesh” because the government had dried up the group’s resources of foreign fighters, placing an entry ban on 55,000 members and deporting around 4,000 suspects.
“In this sense we have dealt the biggest blow to Daesh,” he said.
The foreign minister said Turkey and Erdogan played a key role in defeating IS’s ideology, adding: “Therefore, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is their number-one target.”
Turkey was long accused of turning a blind eye to or even abetting the rise of IS in Syria, while allowing it free transit across its territory, claims it vehemently denies.
However, Western states say Ankara has begun to move strongly against the group and seal its borders to jihadist traffic after the attacks blamed on IS on its soil this year.