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Turkey's strategy against Islamic State armed group has changed, say experts

An ambulance arriving in Gazantiep, Turkey on 20 August 2016, after a bombing that killed 54.
An ambulance arriving in Gazantiep, Turkey on 20 August 2016, after a bombing that killed 54. AFP

Turkey is currently pounding Islamic State armed group countrolled areas located in Syria next to its border with artillery strikes. The shelling came as activists said hundreds of Ankara-backed rebels were preparing an offensive against the IS group to seize control of the city of Jarablus. RFI takes a closer look at the current situation.

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Why is Turkey intensifying its efforts against IS?

This is a clear reaction to the bombing that happened last weekend during a wedding in the city of Gaziantep. Tensions on the Turkey-Syria border have been ramping up for months now.

This Tuesday, two mortar rounds were fired from an IS controlled area in Syria on two Turkish towns. There were no reports of injuries, but Turkish artillery responded to the fire in both cities.

Activists say Syrian rebels, backed by Turkey, are preparing an offensive on Jarablus, a nothern Syrian border town. What is exactly going on there?

It's hard to say - but Kurdish forces, that Turkey opposes, retook the city of Manbij a few weeks ago.

"Turkey wants to make sure that the Islamic State armed group, if it's going to be driven away from the Turkish border, that it's done by the Syrian Arab opposition and not by the Kurds," says Patrick Cockburn, a middle-east expert. "The worst thing thing that happened to Turkey in this war is the creation of a Kurd enclave in east and northern Syria, which is very large." 

Why is the small town of Jarablus important?

While the IS armed group has been losing ground in Syria in recent months, it still has a few strongholds next to the Turkish border. The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which Ankara opposes, also has designs on Jarablus.

"Jarablus is important because of its position and the communications lines that allows jihadists groups, and specifically the Islamic State, to operate," says Zenonas Tziarras, a teacher in Geopolitics at the University of Central Lancashire in Cyprus. "There's a corridor that is being used from the Turkish border. It allows IS to supply itself and foreign fighters to come and go. It's of importance, which is why Turkey wants to control the area. It's also related to Kurdish ambitions."

What's Turkey's strategy when it comes to the Islamic State?

It's complicated.

Ankara has always called for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad as the key to ending the conflict, putting the country at odds with his main supporters Iran and Russia.

Turkey had also long been accused of turning a blind eye to the rise of the IS armed group.

"Really everything in this war, since 2011, has gone wrong for Turkey," says Patrick Cockburn. "Ankara wanted to overthrow President Assad, it's failed to do so. Also, despite its close links with the US, it has been unable to influence the US and prevents it allying itself with the Syrian Kurds."

There are signs that this strategy is changing.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim at the weekend for the first time acknowledged that Assad was one of the "actors" in Syria and may need to stay on as part of a transition.

"Things have changed a little, to the extent that Turkey seems to be approaching the Syrian regime again and prioritising the Islamic State armed group," says Zenonas Tziarras. "This happens not only because of Russia's intervention in Syria, but also because of the numerous terrorists attacks in Turkey. I believe it will also keep fighting the Kurds. 

On Monday, Yildirim urged world powers including Iran, Russia and the United States to join together to rapidly open a "new page" in the Syria crisis.

US Vice President Joe Biden is due to visit Ankara on Wednesday with the unified strategy on Syria set to be a crucial issue.

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