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Syrian rebels prepare to attack IS-held border town from Turkey

The move to take Jarablus is expected to frustrate Kurdish hopes to expand in the area
A Syrian rebel fighter from the Failaq al-Rahman brigade mans a position on the frontline government forces (AFP)

Syrian rebels are preparing to launch an attack to seize a town from the Islamic State (IS) group on the border with Turkey, a senior rebel said on Sunday, in a move that would frustrate Kurdish hopes to expand in the area.

The rebels, Turkish-backed groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), are expected to assault Jarablus from inside Turkey in the next few days, said the rebel official, who is familiar with the plans but declined to be identified.

"The factions are gathering in an area near the border [inside Turkey]," the rebel said.

Another rebel source said they were gathering at a Turkish military camp near the town of Qarqamish just opposite Jarablus.

"Every day there are groups of fighters entering from inside Syria across a secret crossing to a Turkish base where they are gathering in preparation of the assault on Jarablus," the source said.

The drive announcement comes a day after an IS suicide bomber attacked a Kurdish wedding in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, killing at least 54 people and injuring 100 others, 

Turkey on Monday stressed that it was determined to totally push IS out of the Syrian border region. 

"Our border must be completely cleansed from Daesh [IS]," Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in televised remarks. "It is our most natural right to fight at home and abroad against such a terrorist organisation."    

Cavusoglu said that Turkey has already taken an "active" role in the fight against IS allowing coalition forces to use a key base in the southern part of the country for air raids against the militants. 

Turkey was a "prime target of Daesh" because the government had dried up the group's resources of foreign fighters placing an entry ban on 55,000 members and deporting around 4,000 suspects, Cavusoglu added. 

Rivalry with Kurds

Fighters mostly drawn from Failaq al-Sham, Sultan Murad, Ahrar al-Sham and the Jabha al-Shamiya groups were coming from Syria's north-western rebel-held Idlib province and also from the town of Azaz.

Another source, in Ahrar al-Sham, expected the assault on Jarablus to begin in the next few days.

Jarablus, on the western bank of the Euphrates River, is the last significant town held by the militant Islamist group on Syria's border with Turkey.

It is 34 miles (54 km) east of al-Rai, a border town FSA rebel groups recently took from Islamic State.

By taking Jarablus themselves, the rebel groups would preclude an assault on the town by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group of Kurdish-dominated militias who on 6 August took the city of Manbij, 20 miles (30 km) to the south, from IS.

A group allied to the SDF and calling itself the Jarablus military council issued a statement on Sunday accusing Turkey of supporting radical jihadist groups and calling on the US-led coalition to back the council.

The US-led coalition has helped the SDF to make significant gains against Islamic State militants in northern Syria since it was established last year.

Turkey, an important supporter of the FSA groups, is worried that Kurds are using the SDF's westwards expansion against IS to extend their influence across northern Syria. The SDF already holds the eastern bank of the Euphrates opposite Jarablus.

On Saturday, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that Ankara would play a more active role in addressing the conflict in Syria in the coming six months to stop it being torn along ethnic lines.

The rebel source from Ahrar al-Sham said Turkish artillery had since Friday been pounding several Islamic State positions in villages on the outskirts of Jarablus near the border strip.

The mainly Sunni Arab rebel groups are now aiming to regain control of the strategic towns of Tal Rifaat and Marea in the northern Aleppo countryside, currently in the hands of the YPG, the powerful Kurdish militia.

Islamic State has pulled personnel out of Jarablus in recent days, the rebel leader said. On Friday, families of IS militants were evacuated from Jarablus and another city nearby, al-Bab, to the group's stronghold of Raqqa, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The rebel operation aimed to effectively end Islamic State's presence on the Turkish border, the official said.

"There will certainly be resistance. They will have mined it heavily," he said. "The operation of entering Jarablus will not be easy."