Turkey wants to clear Islamic State from a 90 km (56 mile) stretch of territory on the Syrian side of its border, an official said on Wednesday, a week after launching an incursion that has strained ties with the United States.
Operation “Euphrates Shield”, in which Turkish troops and tanks entered Syria in support of rebels for the first time, began on Aug. 24 with the swift capture of Jarablus, a town a few km (miles) inside Syria that was held by Islamic State.
Turkish-backed rebels patrolled the town on motorbikes on Wednesday as children played in dusty alleys.
The bulk of Turkish-backed forces have since moved further south into territory held by militias loyal to the Kurdish-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition supported by Washington in its bid to defeat the jihadists.
Turkish clashes with SDF loyalists have alarmed the United States, which has described the Turkish action as “unacceptable” because it hindered the battle against Islamic State.
But Turkey, which is fighting a Kurdish insurgency at home, says that, while it remains intent on clearing Islamist militants from its border region, it also wants to prevent Kurdish militias from seizing territory in their wake.
Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said the goal was to drive Islamic State from a 90 km strip of land along the border with Turkey, which has been buffeted by a spate of bombings blamed on the group that have killed scores of people.
“Starting from Jarablus, the cleansing of this region is our priority,” Kalin told a news briefing. “We have already cleansed 400 square km successfully.”
Turkey has long said it wants a “buffer zone” in the area, although it has not used the term during this incursion. As well as driving out the ultra-hardline Islamists, it also wants to prevent Kurdish forces taking territory that will let them join up cantons they control in northeast and northwest Syria.
Turkey frets that seizing such a broad swathe of territory could embolden the Kurdish PKK insurgents on Turkish soil.
THUD OF EXPLOSIONS
U.S. officials on Tuesday welcomed what appeared to be a pause in fighting between Turkish forces and rival militias, after days when the border area reverberated with Turkish warplanes roaring overhead into Syria and artillery pounded Syrian sites, saying it was hitting Kurdish fighters.
On Wednesday only the occasional thud of explosions in the distance was audible along the Turkish frontier.