Syrians are returning to border town liberated by Turkish forces - but voice caution over Turkey's ability to bring end to wider war
KARKAMIS, Turkey – Murad returned to his hometown of Jarabulus on 25 August just one day after it was liberated from the Islamic State (IS) group by a coalition of Turkish forces and Syrian rebel fighters.
The battle for Jarabulus was won easily after IS militants fled the area hours before Operation Euphrates Shield was even launched by Turkey. Since its beginning last month Turkish forces and Syrian rebels have cleared IS from more than 90km of the Turkish border.
In Jarabulus, Murad, a journalist, said normal life had resumed and he thanked Turkey for its first direct military intervention in the five-year Syrian war.
“Right now, everything is under control – at least here in the city,” he said. “I’m happy to say life has been steadily returning to these streets. A few shops have already been reopened – a sure sign of people starting to feel safe again.”
Murad fled to Turkey more than three years ago in July 2013 when IS first seized control of Jarabulus. Most of his family stayed behind and several of his relatives were killed in suicide bombing attacks carried out during IS’s brutal reign.
A child plays in the street in Jarabulus after its liberation (Reuters)
Before IS took over, Jarabulus had a population of around 30,000. Over the past three years that number has halved but many people are now returning.
Murad's family home was undamaged despite the fierce conflict that has raged in his town and across Syria since President Bashar al-Assad responded to peaceful protests with brute force in mid-2011.
And although the town has been scarred by the war, those now returning were unable to contain their joy at it being liberated. A rake-thin man crossing the Syria border back to Jarabulus praised the Turkish forces who freed his home town.
“It is a fantastic feeling, knowing that Daesh is no longer a threat,” he said. “We were all very glad to see the launching of the Turkish military operation.
“These soldiers here, they are our lads. We’re hoping nothing bad happens to them. Many of the houses in Jarabulus have been demolished – there’s graffiti on every step – but the town itself, well, it managed to survive.”
After joining street celebrations rejoicing the town’s liberation, the old man sat with friends and family in the shade to escape the afternoon heat. While drinking tea and eating home-grown grapes, the man lamented how his town had become embroiled in politics.
“All of us, we’re very simple folks,” he said. “We were never much interested in politics. But then the war came and it has a huge impact on us. We’re all really hoping we’re not about to see Daesh try to get revenge.”
A child holds a gun of an FSA fighter in Jarabulus (Reuters)
The caution people feel amid the celebrations is reinforced by the fact war is still visible around Jarabulus. Thick black smoke still rises regularly above the olive groves on the outskirts of the town.
The regular thud of bombs and tank fire can be heard in the streets, reminding residents that they are not yet fully secure. A few kilometres away on the Turkish side of the border near the town of Karkamis, a military base is packed with tanks and checkpoints.
A local field hospital and two dozen ambulances are set up nearby and provide evidence of the dangers involved in Turkey’s military intervention in Syria. Wounded Turkish soldiers, Syrian rebels, and civilians have received treatment at the hospital.
Civilians who survived the IS occupation of Jarabulus have spoken about how their were starved over the past year, as supplies ran dry. They were banned by IS from farming their land as the militants planted landmines instead of crops.
A local police commander in the Karkamis said Turkish forces had largely moved on from Jarabulus and advanced 30km into Syrian territory.
Few Turkish soldiers have remained in Jarabulus, but those who have stayed have been busy clearing the town of the mines laid by IS militants before they fled to other towns under the group’s control.
For the Turkish troops who have pushed on past Jarabulus, an equal priority is ensuring Kurdish forces are not allowed to maintain a presence west of the Euphrates river.
Karkamis crossing remains closed (Reuters)
Ankara has been clear that they view Kurdish militia forces in Syria on their border as a threat to their national security, given the proximity to Turkey’s Kurdish dominated and restful southeast.
Several high-ranking Turkish diplomats in Ankara said on condition of anonymity that the 90km area cleared along the Turkey-Syria border could become a buffer zone designed to hold back Kurdish forces as well as IS.
The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said on Monday that he had discussed the idea of a "safe zone" along the border of Syria - a plan he has raised several times in recent years.
But the Turkish intervention in Syria has not just allowed Ankara to satisfy its political goals, it has also opened up an easier passage for humanitarian aid to reach desperate refugees.
At the Onucipay crossing near the border town of Killis, hundreds of Turkish trucks have entered Syria carrying food and humanitarian provisions. At the refugee camp on the Syrian border, which currently holds 20,000 people, refugees with sunken and sun-burned faces said they would not be able to hold out much longer.
Sahi, from the border town of Azaz, said his hometown has been the scene of constant fighting for five years. Azaz is now under the control of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, but its strategic importance lies in that it has been a key supply route to Aleppo – the partially rebel-held second city of Aleppo.
Before the war it only took 45 minutes to travel between Azaz and Aleppo. But with the Syrian army – backed by Russia and Iran – laying siege to the supply route, it has left some 300,000 civilians in rebel-held areas of Aleppo unable to receive food through the Azaz route.
Turkish tanks have passed beyond Jarabulus as Turkey considers creating a 'safe zone' (Reuters)
Ahmet, a 50-year-old man from Syria's Idlib province, said he had been happy to see Turkey retake Jarabulus but he added that he does not have faith it will lead to a wider impact in the Syrian civil war.
“We were glad to see Turkey and the Free Syrian Army liberate Jarabulus,” he said while sipping tea at a shop close to the Syrian border. “It was an important message to send out... but I don’t know what to expect now.”
Two of Ahmet’s three sons fought for two years with the Free Syrian Army – a ragtag group of Syrian rebels who have received strong backing in their war against President Assad from Gulf States and the West.
“All the time my city is being bombed by the [Assad] regime and by Russia. No one is here to defend us,” he said. “We have been left to fend for ourselves. All of us that have stood up against Assad’s regime have been branded as Islamic extremists.”
Ahmet said that the fact Turkey seized Jarabulus so quickly, after more than three years of occupation by IS, was evidence more could have been done to stop the group’s rise in Syria.
“For years Daesh were allowed to do as they pleased,” he said. “They could have been easily destroyed a long time ago. Even Turkey hasn’t fought them as fiercely as it could have done.”