Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed in a phone call on joint action against Islamic State in the Syrian towns of Raqqa and al-Bab, as the battles in both areas have reached critical points.
The war against ISIS in Syria has largely been localized in two areas, eastern Syria around Raqqa city and north-western near the Turkish borders.
Turkey’s military operation in Syria named Euphrates Shield, which was launched last August to drive Islamic State militants from its border and prevent Kurdish fighters from gaining ground and strengthening their positions, has changed the balance of power in northern Syria and added more tension to the already complicated area.
Turkey operations started on August 24 alongside allied rebel forces who have managed to retake the ISIS stronghold of Jarabulus, alongside with al-Rai to the west and Dabiq city. Now their operation is focused on al-Bab as the last major stronghold for ISIS in northern Syria.
Turkey’s operations against ISIS aim at ending the group’s existence near its borders and the group’s ability to pose threat to its internal peace.
Turkey also supports the Syrian rebels in the north and considered one of the opposition’s main backer, what led it in the end to become one of the peace guarantees in Syria and a part in securing a suitable environment for the political process that will end the crisis.
The Turkish administration had differences with the Obama administration in the Kurdish issue, and thus Turkey moved to Russia and coordination with the US in al-Bab battle was largely absent.
However, Erdogan hopes that the relations can rest again under Trump and the both countries cooperate to achieve their mutual interests.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, raised the battle for al-Bab in a telephone conversation with Donald Trump on Tuesday.
Turkish officials said that Erdogan urged the US president to curb Washington’s support for Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the YPG, and cited Turkish progress in al-Bab to argue it would be a better partner in the fight for Raqqa.
The White House said that in the phone call, Trump spoke about the two countries’ “shared commitment to combating terrorism in all its forms” and welcomed Turkish contributions to the fight against Islamic State. But it gave few details.
Sources in Erdogan’s office said the two leaders had touched on issues including a “safe zone”, as well as the regional migrant crisis and the fight against terrorism. Turkey has long advocated a secure zone for displaced civilians in Syria threatened by Islamist militants or forces fighting for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
They also said Erdogan had urged the United States not to support the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia and that new CIA Director Mike Pompeo would be in Turkey on Thursday to discuss that and other issues with Turkish counterparts.
There was no immediate confirmation from Washington of Pompeo’s visit. But the offices of both leaders said Trump had reiterated U.S. support for Turkey “as a strategic partner and NATO ally” during Tuesday’s phone call.
During a televised interview, Presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın confirmed that an agreement was reached between both President Erdoğan and Trump on the need for increased cooperation against ISIS, and that Ankara has proposed a detailed road map to Washington on a possible operation against the ISIS stronghold Raqqa, and that discussions are currently underway.
Kalın also added that Ankara communicated its concerns over issues left behind by the Obama administration (FETÖ and support to the PKK-affiliated YPG), and that Trump responded that these issues are being dealt with by the relevant units in his administration.
Progression in al-Bab battle
Al-Bab is 40km northeast of Aleppo, where the government defeated rebels in December – its most important gain in the nearly six-year-old war.
ISIS fighters in the area are now effectively surrounded by the Syrian army from the south and by Turkish-backed rebels from the north, as Damascus and Ankara race to capture the largest stronghold of the armed group in Aleppo province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Observatory added that the army and allied militia had made gains southeast of al-Bab overnight and fought ISIS there on Monday.
Backed by air strikes, they severed a road that links the city to other ISIS-held territories in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces, it said.
The Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said that ISIS in now surrounded in al-Bab.
“Currently the town is besieged from every side. The outer districts of the town have been brought under control,” Yıldırım told a news conference in Ankara broadcast live.
“As a result of operations launched last night in order to capture al-Bab, the Turkish Armed Forces and the FSA have taken control of hills with strategic significance,” the Turkish military reported.
A total of 58 ISIS militants were neutralized in air strikes, artillery fire and clashes in the past 24 hours as part of the ongoing Operation Euphrates Shield.
Turkish jets destroyed 254 ISIS targets, and coalition forces conducted seven airstrikes and destroyed 13 targets, in the al-Bab region.