ISTANBUL — Turkish military forces launched a dawn offensive to help rebels take control of a Syrian border town from ISIS on Wednesday, marking a major escalation of Turkish involvement in the five-year-old civil war.
The operation — which saw Turkish special forces and tanks cross into the town of Jarabulus from its southern border, along with Turkish-backed Syrian rebels — was backed by Turkish jets and reportedly US drones from the US-led coalition fighting ISIS.
In a statement, the Turkish government said that the operation is "aimed at clearing the district of Jarabulus" from ISIS. But it is also intended to prevent the town from falling to one of Turkey's rivals in Syria, which also happens to be a key US ally.
The ethnic Kurdish militia, known as the YPG, has worked closely with the US military in its campaign against ISIS, coordinating with US airstrikes and even hosting US special operations forces who are embedded in the country. It is the key force in a US-backed coalition in the country called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
But the YPG is also closely linked with the PKK, a Kurdish insurgent group in Turkey that is locked in a spiraling war with the Turkish government. Ankara has long painted the prospect of the YPG seizing control of Jarabulus and the border area around it as a red line.
An official with the Turkish government told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday that the YPG attempted to cross that line when the offensive was launched. "The YPG tried to get to Jarabulus yesterday and was warned off by [our] howitzers," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They should have got the message. It was very clear."
The information could not immediately be verified. But the remarks suggest that Jarabulus could well set off tensions between the two US allies. Turkish leaders were also combative toward the YPG in their public remarks. The country's foreign minister warned the YPG to keep to its territory east of the Euphrates River. "Otherwise we will do what is necessary," he said.
For his part, Salah Moslem, co-leader of the political party that oversees the YPG, issued his own warning to Turkey over Twitter, saying that Turkey will be "defeated" in Syria just like ISIS:
The operation was underway as US Vice President Joe Biden landed in Ankara for official meetings, the highest-profile visit from a US official to the country since the tumult of an attempted coup last month.
The Turkish official said that the US was "on board" with its plans for Jarabulus, and US fighter jets reportedly supported the offensive. But managing the fallout between Turkey and the YPG promises to prove a difficult task for the US — and one with very high stakes.
The difficulties of the US balancing act in Syria came into focus this spring, when rebels who had received support from a long-running CIA program began fighting with the YPG. Some of those rebels are now part of the Turkey-backed force that is intended to do the bulk of ground fighting against ISIS in Jarabulus and then maintain the hold on the city.
Ahmed Othman, the commander of Furqa al-Sultan Murad, one of the US-linked groups that had fought the YPG previously, told BuzzFeed News that his battalion was playing a "key role" in the Jarabulus operation.
The plan, he added, is to take Jarabulus and then continue some 30 miles through ISIS territory to the border town of al-Rai, which rebels won from ISIS earlier this month. He said he believed that Turkish forces would leave the country once this objective was complete. "The Turkish military mission ends after we control Jarabulus and [these] other areas," he said. "They are only here to help us. They have no intention to stay."
The Turkish official concurred with these remarks. Othman, the rebel commander, added that his group had not had discussions with the Turks about the YPG. "There is still no confrontation between us and the [YPG]," he said. "But we will challenge them if they infringe on us."
Alicia Melville-Smith contributed reporting to this article.