Albin Szakola & Ullin Hope

Turkey-backed rebels warn civilians
to flee ISIS-held border strip

The Sultan Murad Division declared the Aazaz-Jarabulus region a "military zone."

Sultan Murad fighters. (YouTube)

BEIRUT – A Turkish-backed rebel group has issued a dramatic warning for civilians to leave the ISIS-held border strip with Turkey, raising the possibility of major military action in the region Ankara wants to turn into a "safe zone."


The Free Syrian Army-affiliated Sultan Murad Division on Monday morning announced that the villages between northern Aleppo's Aazaz and Jarablus were now "military zones," shortly after ISIS rocket fire killed at least one person at a school in the Turkish border town of Kilis.


"We advise civilians to leave these areas in the interests of their safety," the Sultan Murad Division—which is composed of ethnic Turkmen and receives logistical backing from Ankara—added in its terse statement.


"We are not responsible for them after the issuing of this statement."


The Sultan Murad Division has taken part in the Marea Operations Room's recent offensive against ISIS on the eastern outskirts of Aazaz, which has been backed by Turkish artillery fire.


Rebel sources in the Marea Operations Room told the Aleppo-based Shahba Press on Sunday that the "next few days will see important military developments on the ISIS fronts in the north," without elaborating further on the cryptic comment.


Since January 8, the coalition of FSA factions and Islamist battalions has pushed ISIS back from a number of small villages near the Turkish border, reversing the extremist group's gains in the region in late 2015.


On Sunday, the Sultan Murad Division announced that rebels had wrested the small town of Yani Yaban from ISIS, the most recent in a slow series of advances against the transnational jihadist organization.


In the previous week, Marea Operations Room-led rebels have seized the villages of Qarah Kubri, Qarah Mazraa, Al-Khirbeh and Khaftali, setting up a pincer movement surrounding the nearby town of Dudiyan, where clashes are taking place.


All these areas are located within an approximately 10-kilometer stretch of territory near the Turkish border, while the Sultan Murad's statement Monday covered the far larger Aazaz-Jarabulus strip, which stretches 100 kilometers from east to west.


Last week, Turkey’s Yeni Safak daily—which is close to the country's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)—quoted a rebel commander as saying the opposition groups intend to secure Ankara's desired safe-zone stretching from Aazaz to Jarabulus, which would prevent the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) from further expanding along the Turkish border.


Turkish artillery support


As the rebels fought against ISIS in the pitched battles in the northern Aleppo border region, Turkey entered the fray by pummeling ISIS with artillery fire.


Turkish Premier Ahmet Davutoglu announced January 14 that his country had killed 200 militants in 48-hours of artillery strikes against ISIS, which he said came in retaliation to a suicide attack in Istanbul.


However, reports had emerged a week prior that Turkey was already laying down artillery fire in support of the Marea Operation Room's offensive against ISIS.


The ISIS-affiliated A3maq news agency reported on January 9 that Turkish forces where shelling the village of Qarah Kubri with heavy artillery, with the outlet reporting further shelling the following day when opposition forces began their offensive inside the town.


Later that Sunday, Islamist battalions marched into Qarah Kubri, while also capturing nearby Al-Khirbeh from ISIS.


A3maq has since reported renewed Turkish shelling, saying that the villages of Dudiyan, Ghazal and Yani Yaban had all been targeted on January 15.


A pro-Syrian rebel outlet also reported Turkish artillery support for the rebels in the Marea Operations Room.


On January 9, El-Dorar said that the Turkish army was shelling Qarah Kubri, Qarah Mazraa, Al-Ghazal and Al-Rai, among other villages, with not only heavy artillery but also mortar rounds.


"The artillery shelling being witnessed by these areas is the most powerful ever carried out by the Turkish Army, which used to limit [its involvement] to short artillery blasts," the outlet's correspondent reported.


Meanwhile, Yeni Safak touted Ankara's military support for northern Aleppo rebels in their recent offensive against ISIS, saying that the rebel operation was advancing "with the support of heavy artillery fire from Turkey

Fighters from the Sultan Murad Division and allied rebel factions. (YouTube/Sultan Murad)

We advise civilians to leave these areas in the interests of their safety.