Ankara, Beirut- Turkey has given for the first time an approximate date for the end of the “Euphrates Shield” military operation that backs Free Syrian Army rebels to clear the border area with northern Syria from ISIS and Kurdish fighters.
“It is expected that the full security of our borders will be established in the first half of 2017,” Defense Minister Fikri Isik said on Thursday in a presentation to parliament.
He said the next stage of “Euphrates Shield” was to push further south and “cleanse” areas including the city of al-Bab from ISIS.
NATO member Turkey sent tanks, warplanes and artillery into Syria in August in support of mostly Arab and Turkmen rebels in a bid to drive ISIS from a roughly 90 km stretch of border territory and prevent Kurdish militia fighters seizing ground in their wake.
Al-Bab is of particular strategic importance to Turkey because Kurdish-dominated militias have also been pursuing a drive to seize it. Ankara is determined to prevent Kurdish forces from joining up cantons they control in northern Syria for fear it will stoke Kurdish separatism at home.
Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria have been backed by the United States in their fight against ISIS, but Ankara views the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia as a hostile group tied to the Kurdish militants who have fought Turkey for three decades.
Meanwhile, Turkish sources criticized recent U.S. statements on the fight against ISIS in Syria.
U.S. Colonel John Dorrian, a spokesman for the coalition fighting the jihadist group in Syria and Iraq, said Wednesday U.S.-led international coalition battling to defeat ISIS is not backing a drive by Turkish forces and Syrian rebels to retake al-Bab.
Their offensive on the city of al-Bab is not being supported by coalition air strikes because it was “independently” launched by Turkey, he said.
“That’s a national decision that they have made,” Dorrian said.
The U.S. military spokesman said Washington had withdrawn some special forces soldiers who had been deployed to support the Turkish forces and their allies.
“They are not a part of the advance in al-Bab,” he added.
The United States and its allies want to continue to count on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), notably for its offensive against Raqqa, another ISIS stronghold in northern Syria.
But Turkey suspects that the Kurdish-led SDF is only a smokescreen for the YPG, a group it brands a terrorist organization.