Turkey has sent more tanks into northern Syria to the west of a border town seized from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group last week, opening a new front in a cross-border intervention aimed at sweeping its fighters from the area.
Saturday’s development came after Turkish forces and allied Syrian rebels seized the strategic border town Jarablus from ISIL on August 25.
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Turkey and Syrian rebel forces are now continuing an offensive against ISIL in the area, with rebels capturing several other towns on Saturday close to the border with Turkey.
“Today, the rebel factions managed to take control of the villages of Arab Ezza, al-Fursan, and have moved towards Lilwa,” Ahmed Othman, a commander in the pro-Turkey rebel group Sultan Murad, told Al Jazeera from Aleppo’s northern suburbs.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group that records daily developments in the war, confirmed that the rebels had taken several villages.
“Since Jarablus, we have headed west and managed to take over 17 villages from ISIL,” said Othman.
“The goal is to take control of all the villages between al-Rai and Jarablus”.
The Sultan Murad group and other rebel outfits affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), have already driven ISIL out of both towns.
“Today the tanks and armoured personnel started crossing in to Syria,” said Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra on Saturday, reporting from Gaziantep on the Turkish border with Syria.
“It seems that the Turkish government is going to further move into al-Rai where there is the presence of the FSA with the aim of driving ISIL out of those areas,” around the town, said Ahelbarra.
“From Jarablus to al-Rai, there is some 90 kilometres of border area that was under ISIL control for quite some time.”
Turkey, continued Ahelbarra, was “paving the way for the FSA to take over”.
Last week, Turkey launched its first major incursion into Syria since the civil war began more than five years ago. Turkish tanks, fighter jets and special forces are backing rebels who are fighting separately against both ISIL and the Kurdish YPG group.
Turkish-backed rebels have met little resistance as they captured border villages, Othman said.
“There are no clashes, ISIL fighters flee as soon as they see us advancing, especially because we are supported by Turkish air power,” he said.
According to Othman, Turkish tanks “have not entered any of the villages, but have remained on standby on the Syrian side of the border”.
Last month’s operation was Ankara’s most ambitious during the five-and-a-half-year Syria conflict, and has since continued with tanks, fighter jets and special forces providing support to rebels.
After crossing the border on August 24, Turkish-backed Syrian rebels recaptured the border town of Jarablus from ISIL in 14 hours.
The strategic town had been controlled by ISIL, which is also known as ISIS, for two years. Al-Bab is not the group’s only stronghold in Syria’s northeast.
With reporting from Zena al-Tahhan: @ZenaTahhan