Turkey-backed militants set to race US-supported Kurds for ISIS-held Syrian town

Free Syrian Army fighters. © Khalil Ashaw
Ankara-backed Islamist units have reportedly mobilized on the Turkish side of the Syrian border to launch an assault on Jarablus, aiming to prevent the US-backed Kurdish-dominant SDF from capturing the town from Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) terrorists.

“The factions are gathering in an area near the border (inside Turkey),” one of the Free Syrian Army fighters told Reuters. Another rebel source confirmed a buildup of forces, loosely organized under the FSA umbrella, inside Turkey at a military camp near the town of Qarqamish just across the border with Jarablus.

“Every day there are groups of fighters entering from inside Syria across a secret crossing to a Turkish base where they are gathering in preparation of the assault on Jarablus,” the source told the news agency.

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RT’s Arabic crew is reporting that some 600 to 700 fighters are ready to launch an assault on Jarablus. Lebanese-based Al Mayadeen channel reports that dozens of military vehicles already have crossed from Turkey into Syria.

According to Reuters the forces are made up of Failaq al Sham, Sultan Murad, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabha al Shamiya units. The assault is expected to begin in the next few days before Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) can retake the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) -held town.

A US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters are also making a push towards the border town after taking full control of Manbij by driving IS militants from the strategically important town, used by terrorists to smuggle weapons and goods. The SDF already controls the eastern bank of the Euphrates opposite Jarablus.

Ankara has long been worried about the autonomy of Kurds in Syria as Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) of the Democratic Union Party of Syria (PYD) with the help of American-led airstrikes, continue to capture vast amount of territory in Northern Syria, which borders Kurdish-dominant southeastern Turkey, where Ankara has engaged the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in a brutal military campaign for over a year.

Turkey has repeatedly said that it would not tolerate Kurds staying west of the Euphrates River, with YPG-PYD advances in northern Syria remaining the key security issue for Ankara. The two groups are designated terrorist organizations by Turkey but not the US. Turkey fears that Kurds are trying to link up Afrin canton with its cantons in the east, Kobane and Cizre.

On Saturday the Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim vowed that Ankara will play a “more active” role in Syria in the next six months.

“We say the bloodshed needs to stop. Babies, children, innocent people should not die. That’s why Turkey will be more active in trying to stop the danger getting worse in the next six months, compared with before,” Yildirim told reporters in Istanbul.

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A source from the radical jihadist Ahrar al-Sham brigade told Reuters that Turkish artillery has already engaged in shelling IS positions at the border next to Jarablus since Friday in preparation for the assault on the town.

The main goal of the Turkey-backed forces prior to capturing Jarablus is to regain control of Tal Rifaat and Marea towns in northern Aleppo province, now controlled by YPG militia.

IS has meanwhile started pulling its followers from Jarablus, and another city nearby, al-Bab, to the terrorist stronghold of Raqqa

“There will certainly be resistance. They will have mined it heavily,” the source said. “The operation of entering Jarablus will not be easy.”

Arabic news outlets report that IS plans to use its long-standing strategy of using human shields in the fight for Jarablus.