ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish and Syrian rebel forces, aided by U.S. aircraft and Special Operations advisers, have launched a major cross-border offensive aimed at capturing the Islamic State’s last stronghold on Syria’s border with Turkey.
The operation, Turkey’s largest direct involvement yet against the militants in Syria, includes Turkish planes, tanks, artillery and special operations units, along with 500 to 700 rebel fighters. In addition to the presence of U.S. advisers, American surveillance aircraft are providing overflight intelligence and are poised to contribute U.S. airstrikes, according to a senior Obama administration official.
The offensive immediately broadened and raised the stakes in the complex Syrian conflict. The Syrian government demanded an immediate end to what it called Turkish aggression, saying the incursion was a “blatant violation” of Syrian sovereignty being carried out under the pretext of fighting terrorism.
The offensive in the Syrian border town of Jarabulus, along the Euphrates River, began just hours before the arrival here Wednesday of Vice President Biden on a mission to repair the eroding U.S.-Turkey relationship, which is considered crucial to the ongoing battle against the Islamic State.
“The major goal of the trip is to make sure that our alliance remains rock-solid and that relations get back on track,” said the senior official, who was traveling with Biden. “We can’t afford any friction in our relationship right now, because we have a lot of business to do with the Turks.”
Biden, the official said, will try to convince Turkey that the United States understands the trauma of last month’s coup attempt here. The vice president went directly from the airport in Ankara to the Turkish parliament, which was bombed by commandeered F-16s during the failed insurrection. Accompanied by Parliamentary Speaker Ismail Kahraman, Biden walked across the rubble and glass covering an interior courtyard of the building that lay in ruins.
“This is devastating,” Biden said. “Can you imagine if this happened at home? Can you imagine what the American public would be saying . . . the psychological impact?”
After the parliament visit, Biden held a working lunch with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. Later in the day, he was scheduled to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Biden, traveling with a large Secret Service contingent, was scheduled to leave Turkey before nightfall.
The latest in an escalating series of terrorist attacks here took place Saturday, when a suicide bomber killed 54 people at a Kurdish wedding in the Turkish city of Gaziantep.
The senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. planning, said that Biden would soft-pedal public reminders for Turkey to respect human rights and democratic norms in its response to the coup attempt — a reaction that has included the arrest of tens of thousands of Turks for allegedly supporting the failed insurrection led by a rump group of military officers. Such commentary, including from President Obama, has enraged Turkish officials.
Biden will also assure Erdogan that the United States is seriously examining the extradition request for Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, a U.S. resident who Turkey says was the coup mastermind. However, the official said, the Turks “probably have some unreasonable expectations” about how fast the process can be completed.
A U.S. Justice Department team arrived here Tuesday to clarify some of the information contained in four separate Turkish requests, all of which refer to alleged criminal activity by Gulen predating the coup attempt. But officials have said that the required steps — including an administration determination of whether the evidence crosses the legal threshold for extradition, followed by an extended court process — may take years.
“Nothing would be permanently reassuring unless Gulen was on a plane and we were delivering him,” the official acknowledged. “The general message is that we are working this as hard as we possibly can,” he said. “The other message is that this is not something that the president and vice president can decide unilaterally. If the president woke up tomorrow and said ‘extradite Gulen,’ that would be illegal.”
Turkish officials have helped whip up anti-U.S. sentiment in the weeks since the failed coup attempt, accusing the United States of siding with the plotters and warning that the administration risks losing Turkey as an ally.
“The Turkish public simply no longer trusts the U.S. administration,” the pro-government Daily Sabah said in an editorial published on the eve of Biden’s visit. “Never have bilateral ties been this frayed, never have ordinary Turks been this disillusioned.”
NATO-member Turkey in recent weeks has backed away from its traditional alliance with the West in favor of fresh ties with Russia. Erdogan’s pivot toward Moscow, where he visited President Vladimir Putin last week, comes less than a year after Turkish warplanes shot down a Russian fighter jet flying sorties over Syria, causing relations to spiral and pushing the two countries to the brink of war.
Erdogan and Putin remain on opposing sides of Syria’s civil war, with Turkey backing Sunni Islamist rebels and Russia supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But Turkish officials have hinted that they would allow Russian fighter jets to use Incirlik Air Base — where U.S. troops and aircraft are stationed— to launch bombing raids on Islamic State targets in Syria.
Analysts here say Turkey appears to be using potential new ties with Russia as leverage over U.S. and European allies who have criticized the post-coup arrests and a more general crackdown on dissent.
“This isn’t a zero-sum game,” a senior Turkish official said of the new partnership with Russia. “Turkey has a diverse set of interests . . . just like every other country.”
Turkey is also angered by America’s support for U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Syria, which it sees as a threat to its territorial integrity. Turkey is home to roughly 14 million Kurds, including Kurdish militants who have waged a decades-old war for autonomy.
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria have proved an effective fighting force against the Islamic State, benefiting from U.S. backing but also alarming officials in Ankara.
“The U.S. has remained indifferent to Turkish complaints” about the YPG, Ilnur Cevik, chief adviser to Erdogan, wrote in a Daily Sabah column Tuesday. “Our major ally, the U.S., should . . . start disengaging with the YPG as soon as possible.”
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey’s goal is to “sweep ISIS away from the border.” ISIS and ISIL are alternative names for the Islamic State. But he also warned Syrian Kurdish fighters to return east of the Euphrates River, saying that “if they fail to do so, we will do what is necessary.”
The capture of Jarabulus from the Islamic State would deprive the Islamist militants of their last remaining smuggling route for foreign fighters and supplies, and it could also blunt a parallel offensive by the U.S.-backed YPG-dominated force that has been advancing against the militants farther to the south at the city of Manbij.
But the administration apparently has decided that it is more important to assuage Turkish sensitivities than to expand the Manbij offensive toward the north.
When YPG forces outside Manbij moved several miles northward over the weekend, Turkish artillery shelled them.
“The Turks got nervous that somehow these guys . . . were making a jailbreak for the border,” the senior administration official said. “They rallied opposition forces” already readying a strike on Jarabulus, to clear the border of the Islamic State before the Kurds could arrive there.
In addition to helping the Turks in the Jarabulus offensive, he said, “we’re living up to our assurances to the Turks that the Kurds are not going to move north. . . . We’ve made it clear to [the YPG] that we won’t support them going north and, by the way, they can’t move without us providing air support.”
“For the moment,” the official said, “I think we’ve put a lid on the biggest concern that the Turks have, which I think gives us some breathing space to make sure this operation on Jarabulus is done the right way, and that we and the Turks do it together.”
Cunningham reported from Istanbul and Sly from Beirut. Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul contributed to this report.