A clash erupted between the Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and Assad regime forces near the town of al-Bab, in the first confrontation between them as both sides fight Islamic State in the 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 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 along with Russia and a part in securing a suitable environment for the political process that will end the crisis.
Russia and Turkey have backed opposing sides in the war but recently started cooperating to achieve mutual interests. However, these interests may contradict as Assad regime forces headed to al-Bab and started battling ISIS there.
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.
Many feared that regime forces’ advance towards al-Bab risks triggering a confrontation with the Turkish military and its allies – rebel groups fighting under the Free Syria Army (FSA) banner – and that’s what happened in the end.
First confrontation near al-Bab
Rebel officials said the clash took place in a village southwest of al-Bab. An official in a military alliance fighting in support of the Syrian government confirmed a clash had taken place. “The Russians intervened to control the situation,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Two rebel officials accused the government forces of provoking the incident. One of them said the government forces had moved towards their positions in tanks. “Rebels shot to warn them not to get any closer, but the tank responded and a clash erupted,” said the first rebel official.
“Later on Russia intervened to calm down the situation,” said the rebel official. “This whole incident felt like a test.”
A second rebel official, a commander in the al-Bab area, added: “They opened fire. Fire was returned.”
Both rebel officials said an armored vehicle had been captured from the government forces.
There was no immediate comment from Russia.
The regime forces meanwhile mounted its own, rapid advance towards the city in the last few weeks, advancing to within a few kilometers (miles) of its southern outskirts.
In three weeks, Syrian army units moved to within 6km of al-Bab, as Damascus seeks to stop Turkey from penetrating deeper into a strategic area of northern Syria.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said earlier this week that clashes with the Syrian forces had been avoided thanks to international coordination, including between Turkey and Russia.
The Syrian crisis began as a peaceful demonstration against the injustice in Syria. Assad regime used to fire power and violence against the civilians and led to armed resistance. 450.000 Syrians lost their lives in the past five years according to UN estimates, and more than 12 million have lost their homes.