Turkish Tanks Enter Syrian Territory to Free ISIS-Held Town of Jarabulus

Turkish tanks on the Syrian border
Turkish army tanks and alleged Syrian opposition fighter trucks are shown positioned two kilometers west from the Syrian Turkish border town of Jarabulus, in this picture taken from the Turkish Syrian border city of Karkamis in the southern region of Gaziantep, on August 24. Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Updated | Turkish tanks have crossed into Syrian territory in a bid to free a border town held by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

Turkey's military launched an operation Wednesday to oust the radical Islamist group from the town of Jarabulus in Syria, the Turkish prime minister's office said. It represents the largest operation conducted by the Turkish military in the five-year Syrian civil war and its most decisive action against ISIS since the group's rise.

"The Turkish Armed Forces and the International Coalition Air Forces have launched a military operation aimed at clearing the district of Jarabulus of the province of Aleppo from the terrorist organization Daesh," the office added, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

Turkish state news agency Anadolu said that the operation, named "Euphrates Shield," began at 4 a.m. local time. The operation is taking place in coordination with the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Turkish jets pounded ISIS positions in Jarabulus and tanks fired across the border into the town, military sources told Reuters. It comes after mortars struck the Turkish town of Karkamis on Tuesday, pushing the Turkish military into a response.

Hundreds of Syrian rebels backed by Ankara have now crossed the Turkish border into Syria as part of the operation, according to the U.K.-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Some 500 rebels had been waiting at the border to cross into Syria.

On the same day, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Ankara for talks with Turkish officials in a bid to mend a rift with the NATO ally over the potential extradition of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the Turkish government blames for last month's failed coup.

On Monday, the country's top diplomat said Turkey must ensure that the Syrian border region is completely "cleansed" of ISIS fighters. His comments came in the wake of a suicide bombing that took place during a Kurdish wedding in the city of Gaziantep, leaving 54 dead and dozens wounded.

Turkey remains concerned about Kurdish ambitions in Syria's north, along its southern shared border, and the operation to remove ISIS from Jarabulus may be an attempt to prevent a Kurdish assault on the town.

Authorities are still trying to determine the identity of the Gaziantep bomber, despite President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier stating that a youth aged between 12 and 14 years had carried out the attack.

"Our border must be completely cleansed from Daesh," Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a televised statement.

"[ISIS] martyred our... citizens. It is our natural right to fight at home and abroad against such a terrorist organization."

In the past year, Turkey has suffered a series of extremist attacks by suspected ISIS militants, the deadliest being a double bombing on a peace rally in Ankara and a triple suicide bombing at Istanbul's Ataturk airport.

This story has been updated to reflect that both Turkish tanks and Turkish-backed Syrian rebels have now crossed the border into Syrian territory.