The Campaign West of the Euphrates: Analysis of Turkish Army and Rebel Organizations’ Capture of Jarabulus (Initial assessment, morning of August 25, 2016)

Self-propelled Turkish army guns attack ISIS positions in Jarabulus (Twitter account of Al-Anadolu News, August 23, 2016).

Self-propelled Turkish army guns attack ISIS positions in Jarabulus (Twitter account of Al-Anadolu News, August 23, 2016).

The Jarabulus border crossing (Halabnews.com)

The Jarabulus border crossing (Halabnews.com)

FSA forces in Jarabulus (Twitter account of Al-Anadolu News, August 24, 2016).

FSA forces in Jarabulus (Twitter account of Al-Anadolu News, August 24, 2016).

FSA fighters prepare to enter Jarabulus (Facebook page of Jarabulus Today, August 24, 2016).

FSA fighters prepare to enter Jarabulus (Facebook page of Jarabulus Today, August 24, 2016).

One of the ISIS headquarters in Jarabulus that fell to the attacking forces (Alsalser.com, August 24, 2016).

One of the ISIS headquarters in Jarabulus that fell to the attacking forces (Alsalser.com, August 24, 2016).

FSA forces before they enter Jarabulus (AhmadAlkhtiib/twitter.com, August 24, 2016).

FSA forces before they enter Jarabulus (AhmadAlkhtiib/twitter.com, August 24, 2016).


Overview

On August 24, 2016, the city Jarabulus, located near the Turkish border, was captured from ISIS by Turkish army armored and special forces along with Syrian rebel organizations. From the Turkish perspective, the objective of the so-called Operation Euphrates Shieldwas to repel ISIS from proximity to its border and prevent the Kurdish forces from making additional gains west of the Euphrates. The ISIS operatives in Jarabulus did not put up significant resistanceand retreated from the city to the organization's strongholds in al-Bab and Tabqa.

 

1.   The city of al-Bab is now in the crosshairs of the Turkish army and the rebel organizations backed by Turkey and the West. The fall of al-Bab will signify the collapse of ISIS's strongholds west of the Euphrates and further shrink the area under its control in Syria and Iraq. The vacuum caused by the expulsion of ISIS west of the Euphrates may createfriction between the local forces and the powers fighting ISIS, especially between the Kurds (who feel they have been betrayed) and the United States.

Jarabulus – Background Information

2.   The city of Jarabulus is located in the Aleppo Governorate. Before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war was home to almost 12,000 people (Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds). It lies close to the Syrian-Turkish border (opposite Karkamiş in Turkey) and has an official border crossing. Jarabulus and its nearby border crossing were occupied by Syrian rebels on July 20, 2012, and since September 2013 have been controlled by ISIS. In January 2014 the rebel organizations retook control of the city, but were driven out by ISIS.

3.   ISIS took control of Jarabulus as part of establishing its control of the area along the Turkish border west of the Euphrates. Control of the Jarabulus border crossing (the last Syrian-Turkish crossing overseen by ISIS and of various other unofficial crossings allowed ISIS to maintain vital logistic routes. ISIS used the corridor to move operatives and weapons from Turkey to Syria and operatives and petroleum products from Syria to Turkey.

The Capture of Jarabulus

4.   On the morning of August 24, 2016, Turkish army and rebel organization fighters (backed by Turkey and the West) entered Syrian territory and captured the city of Jarabulus. According to initial reports the attacking force consisted of several dozen tanks and armored vehicles (include self-propelled artillery), 250 special force operatives, and Turkish and American air cover. There were also an estimated 1,000-1,500 rebel organization fighters (Washington Post, August 24, 2016), prominent among them the Free Syrian Army (FSA). According to a Turkish version, there were 5,000 rebel fighters (Hurriyetdailynews.com, August 24, 2016).[1]

5.   The Turks defined the objectivesof the operation as cleansing Jarabulus from ISIS and preventing the Kurdish forces from approaching the Syrian-Turkish border and creating a Kurdish territorial contiguity. It was also reported that the Turks were planning to create a demilitarized zone as a haven for Syrian refugees. The Turks called the operation Euphrates Shield, possibly a reference to their intention to prevent hostile forces (Kurds and ISIS) from establishing themselves west of the Euphrates along the border.

 

6.   The forces attacking Jarabulus did not meet with significant resistance from ISIS and the city was capturedthe same day (as opposed to ISIS's determined resistance to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Manbij). During the morning and early afternoon of August 24, 2016, several villages surrounding Jarabulus were captured. In the late afternoon Turkish army special forces and FSA fighters entered Jarabulus and by evening had taken control of the government buildings and the city as a whole. The ISIS operatives retreated to Tabqa (west of al-Raqqa) (Orient, August 24, 2016) and al-Bab (northeast of Aleppo) (Hurriyetdailynews.com, August 24, 2016). The Turkish army attackin Jarabulus was supported by Turkish air strikes against ISIS targets in and around the city (according to Turkish and Arab sources, between 60 and 80 targets were hit).

7.   The Turkish move to occupy Jarabulus received American aerial support. The American Department of Defense said in an announcement that American planes had carried out eight sorties during the operation(Hurriyetdailynews.com, August 24, 2016).

The Significance of the Occupation of Jarabulus

8.   The occupation of Jarabulus has several significant aspects:

A.   ISIS:

1)   Having lost Jarabulus, ISIS may now also lose the city of al-Bab, its last stronghold west of the Euphrates. The fall of Jarabulus and the surrounding villages without a battle may indicate military weakness and problems of morale among ISIS operatives.

2)   The fall of Jarabulus and ISIS-controlled territory west of the Euphrates indicates a new, significant stage in shrinking the areas of ISIS control in Syria and Iraq. That may weaken ISIS in Syria, further damage its prestige, and strengthen the other rebel organizationsin the northern part of the country.

3)   The loss of territory along the Syrian-Turkish border can pose significant logistic difficulties for the core of ISIS's control in Syria and Iraq in dealing with the outside world. It will be more difficult for ISIS to transfer operatives, weapons and equipment to the Islamic State, send terrorist operatives abroad and export and sell petroleum products to finance its activities.

4)   As in the past, ISIS can be expected to react to the loss of Jarabulus by increasing its terrorist and guerrilla activities inside Syria and Iraq. It can also be expected to encourage terrorist attacks abroad, especially in Turkey and the West. It may orchestrate its own attacks, and its supporters may be motivated to carry out terrorist attacks ("ISIS-inspired attacks").

B.   Turkey: The incursion of Turkish forces into Jarabulus was the largest Turkish military actionin Syria since the beginning of the civil war. Its success may encourage Ankara to try to take control of al-Bab (directly or using the rebel organizations as proxies), establish its influence and create a buffer zone west of the Euphrates(an idea Turkey has proposed several times). That would prevent the Kurds from establishing a territorial contiguity along the Syrian-Turkish border and expel any ISIS operatives still present(making it difficult for them to continue terrorist attacks in Turkey).

C.  The Kurds: The Kurd-dominated SDF forces (with American support) began the campaign to liberate Manbij on the assumption, which later proved incorrect, that they would be able to take control of other ISIS strongholds west of the Euphrates. The Turkish move may prove a serious obstacle to Kurdish expansion west of the Euphratesand may put an end to Kurdish aspirations to create a territorial contiguity between the areas it controls in the east and the Afrin enclave in the west. Current Turkish policy has made the Kurds, who may feel abandoned by the United States, face their military and political limitations and force them to reevaluate their plans for the future.

D.  The super powers (United States and Russia): The United States and Russia support the Kurdish fighting force, which proved itself as the most effective local force against ISIS. At the same time, there are political considerations in both countries making supporting the Kurds politically difficult: the United Statesplaces great importance in its relations with Turkey, which in turn regards the Kurdish Autonomous Region in northeastern Syria as a threat no less dangerous than that of ISIS. Russiasupports the Syrian regime, which is fighting the rebel organizations supported by Turkey, and strongly opposes Turkey's aspirations to establish a buffer zone in northern Syria. Thus the Turkish incursion into Syria is liable to further complicate the Syrian civil war and the relations between the powers and the forces they support. It is also liable to reduce the effectiveness of the campaign against ISIS by lowering the morale of the Kurdish fighters.

Appendix
Initial Reactions to the Turkish Incursion into Jarabulus
Turkey

1.   When it entered Syria, Turkey announced it was a measure taken in self-defense. It was, according to Ankara, a response to ISIS attacks on the Turkish cities lying along the Syrian border and in response to ISIS's suicide bombing attacks against Turkish civilians (CNN, August 24, 2016).

2.   Some Turkish reactions were the following:

A.   Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirimheld a joint press conference with American Vice President Joe Biden, where he said that Turkey would not allow any Kurdish power to establish itself on Turkey's southern border. He said the PYD (Democratic Union Party, the leading Kurdish political organization in Syria) was a branch of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party, considered a terrorist organization by the Turkish government). He strongly suggested the United States reexamine its position regarding the entire issue (Hurriyetdailynews.com, August 24, 2016).

B.   Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlusaid the fighting in Jarabulus was a turning point in the international fight against ISIS. He added that the Kurdish forces had to return to the territory east of the Euphrates(CNN, August 24, 2016).

C.  Turkish Minister of the Interior Efkan Alasaid Turkey was cooperating with the coalition forces fighting ISIS and the Syrian moderate opposition. He said Turkey would not permit terrorist organizations near the border to threaten the country (CNN, August 24, 2016).

D.  Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim KalinTweeted that the objective of "Operation Jarabulus" was to rid the Turkish border of "terrorist elements," including ISIS and the YPG(Hurriyetdailynews.com, August 24, 2016).

The Kurds

3.   Various Kurdish spokesmen in Syria strongly condemnedthe Turkish invasion:

A.   Ridor Khalil, official spokesman of the YPG (People's Protection Units, the Kurdish military force in Syria),said the Turkish conquest of the Jarabulus region was an aggressive move against the Kurdish forces deployed along the Euphrates. He said the Kurdish forces were in their own country and would not leave, whether the demand came from Turkey or anywhere else. He said no one had the right to demand their withdrawal (Facebook page of Kurdish news, August 25, 2016)

B.   Rodi Osman, head of the Syrian Kurdish legation in Moscow, claimed Al-Nusra Front and other extremist organizations were fighting alongside the Turkish forces in Jarabulus. He said the Turkish army operation was part of the Turkish president's plan to renew the Ottoman Empire (Sputnik News, August 24, 2016).

C.  On August 22, 2016 (two days before the Turkish incursion), the SDF forces issued a condemnation of Turkey's efforts to increase its influence in Jarabulus. They claimed Turkey was financing military organizations which were no different from ISIS. The SDF appealed to the coalition countries fighting terrorism to honor their commitments to the Kurds and defend their country from outside intervention(Facebook page of the SDF forces, August 22, 2016).

Syria

4.   The Syrian foreign ministrystrongly condemned the Turkish invasion. According to the ministry, Ankara had to coordinate such a move with the Syrian government. In addition, it was not an issue of the fight against terrorism, as the Turks claimed, but rather exchanging one type of terrorism for another. The Syrian foreign ministry called on the UN to take the necessary measures against Turkey (Al-Alam TV, Iran, August 24, 2016).

5.   The Syrian foreign ministercondemned the incursion of Turkish army tanks and other armored vehicles into Syrian territory, calling it a violation of Syrian sovereignty. He said anyone wanting to fight terrorism in Syria had to coordinate with the Syrian government and army, which had been waging the campaign against terrorism for more than five years. He said the objective of the fighting was to replace ISIS with other terrorist organizations [i.e., the rebel organizations], supported by the Turkish government (CNN, August 24, 2016).

6.   Bashar al-Ja'afari, the Syrian representative to the UN, claimed Turkey would not have dared to violate Syrian sovereignty if the international coalition had not been violating Syrian sovereignty for the past two years. He added that ISIS could not be fought in Syria unless it were also fought in Turkey [a veiled reference to Turkey's incompetence in fighting ISIS on its own soil] (Al-Nashra, August 24, 2016).

The United States

7.   The Turkish incursion into Syria was carried out while American Vice President Joe Bidenwas visiting Turkey. Biden publicly expressed support of the Turkish operation called on the Kurdish forces not to operate to the west of the Euphrates, and noted that the United States was providing aerial support. The Kurds called American public support for Turkey a "slap in the face" (Aranews, August 24, 2016).

8.   In a press conference Prime Minister Yildirim held with Vice President Biden, Biden said “We’ve made it absolutely clear" to the YPG that “they must move back across [to] the [east of Euphrates] river.” He added, "They cannot — will not — under any circumstance get American support if they do not keep that commitment.”[2]

9.   At a press briefing, White House Spokesman Josh Earnest called the Turkish border crossing "an indication of important progress."[3]

Russia

10.       Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said Russia was very worried by the escalation and tension on the Turkish-Syrian border, saying they might worsen regional Arab-Kurdish relations (Tass, August 24, 2016).

[1]Among the rebel forces, in addition to the FSA, were fighters from the Syrian Front, the Nur al-Din Zengi Movement, the al-Sham Front, the Mountain Eagles, the Sultan Murat Brigade, Sukur al-Jeber and Feylek al-Sham (Hurriyetdailynews.com, August 25, 2016; SPC, Syria, August 24, 2016).
[2]http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2016-08-24/u-s-backs-turkey-call-for-kurds-to-retreat-east-of-euphrates
[3]https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/08/24/press-briefing-press-secretary-josh-earnest-82416