BEIRUT/ISTANBUL: TURKEY bombarded Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) forces across the border yesterday (Tuesday) as rebels prepared to launch an attack on a jihadist-held town in northern Syria, in a battle that could pit three sides in the war against each other.
Turkey, a fervent opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has allowed hundreds of opposition fighters to gather near Karkamis, a Turkish border town facing Isil-held Jarablus.
The Turkish army began hitting Isil's positions in the town with artillery strikes on Monday.
Isil launched retaliatory strikes yesterday morning, firing two mortars into Karkamis, prompting a second round of strikes from Turkey. Turkish police later ordered residents through loudspeaker announcements to evacuate Karkamis "for safety reasons".
Mevlut Cavusoglu, the foreign minister, pledged to "cleanse" the country's frontier of the terror group after a suspected Isil suicide bomber killed 54 people in the southern city of Gaziantep on Saturday. The attack, which targeted a Kurdish wedding, was the deadliest to hit the country this year.
Jarablus, the last stretch of border territory held by Isil, is its only remaining gateway to Turkey and the outside world. Significantly for Ankara, it also separates the two Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria.
The rebel attack on Jarablus could put the Turkish-backed opposition on a collision course with not only the jihadists, but also Kurdish fighters supported by the United States. The US-backed Syrian Defence Forces (SDF), which are dominated by the powerful Kurdish YPG militia, set their eyes on Jarablus after liberating the nearby city of Manbij earlier this month.
Capturing Jarablus would unify the Kurdish-controlled regions, bringing Syria's Kurds one step closer to their dream of an independent state - a prospect that deeply concerns Turkey.
Ankara fears that an autonomous Kurdish state on its border would inflame tensions with its own Kurdish minority. The YPG's success has emboldened its Turkish sister group, the PKK, which has waged a bloody three-decade insurgency against the state.While the PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation in Turkey, the US and Europe, the YPG has become the West's most effective ally in fighting Isil. Turkey considers the YPG to be the PKK's Syrian wing.
While bombarding Isil, Turkey also hit Kurdish targets outside Manbij on Monday night.
Turkey's actions have enraged the Kurds, which have frequently accused Ankara of supporting Isil by turning a blind eye to foreign fighters crossing its border to reach the jihadists' self-declared "caliphate".
Shervan Derwish, spokesman for the SDF, told The Daily Telegraph the group would not back down. "Turkey is trying to control Jarablus not to help the people living under Isil there, but just to stop the Kurds," he said. "Judging by Turkey's past, we do not believe that they are really trying to defeat Isil."
Isil jihadists, meanwhile, are preparing for an attack. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an UK-based monitor group, said that Isil began evacuating fighters' families from Jarablus over the weekend. "There will certainly be resistance. They will have mined it heavily," the Observatory said.
A few miles east of Jarablus, Assad forces agreed a truce with Kurdish forces in the city of Hasakah yesterday.