Media outlets have reported that ISIS has captured strategically significant villages from Syrian opposition groups near the Turkish border in northern Syria where Turkey and US-led coalition forces are aiming to establish an ISIS-free zone following an agreement between the allies on the use of Turkey's Incirlik Air Base.
Reuters reported the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as saying that ISIS has taken over several villages in the area between Marea and Azaz and “encircled” the opposition-held district of Marea, citing a recent ISIS announcement.
Marea is just 20 kilometers away from Turkey’s southern border. The captured villages are Dalhah, Harjalah, Sandef, and Harbul according to the UK-based SOHR.
Turkish media recently reported that Turkey and the US signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) determining allied military planning in order to clear ISIS forces from an area between Marea and Jarablus in northern Syria. The reports put the length of the proposed safe area as 98 kilometers.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that the US and Turkey ended talks on Sunday regarding plans to establish an ISIS-free zone in northern Syria, speaking in a Reuters interview on Monday.
He said, “The technical talks have been concluded and soon we will start this operation, comprehensive operations, against Daesh [ISIS].”
Cavusoglu previously declared a “comprehensive battle” against ISIS would start soon after Turkey and US agreed to the use of the Incirlik base. The base is located 100 km from northwest Syrian border and Turkish airfields will also be used by the US-led coalition forces for air strikes against the group in order to execute a joint action plan in northern Syria.
ISIS already controls a zone from Jarablus to Marea along the Turkish border. The group reportedly recently attacked the area between Azaz and Mare, which are situated in northwestern Syria and controlled by other opposition groups.
It is clear that if ISIS takes control of Marea then it could also threaten Azaz more directly, which means the planned creation of an ISIS-free zone could be seriously disrupted.
Furthermore, if this area between Marea and Azaz is captured by ISIS Turkey would be left with both ISIS and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) - the militant wing of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) - on its Syrian border.
The area between Marea and Azaz is also located between the two PYD-controlled “cantons” of Kobani and Afrin.
The PYD is considered by Turkey to be the Syrian affiliate of the outlawed PKK. Both ISIS and the PKK are recognised as terrorist groups by Turkey, NATO, the EU, and US.
The PYD has been able to expand the territories it controls in northern Syria after the YPG on June 15 captured Tel Abyad from ISIS and joined the Kobani and the Jazira “cantons.” The expansion of the PYD at the expense of ISIS has been supported by US-led air strikes until now.
Turkey aims to keep the expansion of PYD in check and has previously declared that Turkey will consider any incursion to the west of the Euphrates river in northern Syria along the Turkish border by the PYD as a violation of a "red line” which was set by its most recent National Security Council meeting in late June.