Turkish-backed Syrian rebels have largely taken control of Syria’s al-Bab from Islamic State militants after massive battles, according to the Turkish prime minister.
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.
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.
Al-Bab is about to fall
“Al-Bab has been largely taken under control. Our aim is to prevent the opening of corridors from territories controlled by terrorist organizations to Turkey,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in a speech to lawmakers from his ruling AK Party in parliament.
The Anadolu Agency added that at least 26 ISIS militants were killed, wounded or captured in northern Syria over the 24 hours to Tuesday morning.
A statement from the Turkish General Staff said 135 ISIS targets, including shelters, headquarters, defensive positions and vehicles were hit by the FSA and Turkish army.
The Turkish Air Force destroyed 42 buildings used by the group and a vehicle carrying a bomb, the statement added.
However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the militants remained in control of the northern Syrian town.
“Battles continue on the outskirts and entry points…of al-Bab between Islamic State (IS) and the Turkish forces and the Euphrates Shield factions, amid advances by the latter in the area,” the Observatory said.
“The organization (ISIS) still controls most of al-Bab,” it added.
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 Observatory has previously reported.
This new advancement created tension in northern Syria as the regime forces clashed with the rebels for the first time, and three Turkish soldiers were killed by a Russian airstrike, in what Moscow describes as a mistake due to lack of coordination.
Next targets: Manbij and Raqqa, safe zones
Erdogan has made it clear it many times that his country’s operations aim at fighting the Kurdish militias as well as defeating ISIS, as both of them resemble a threat to Turkey’s internal security.
“Al-Bab is about to be captured. Manbij and Raqqah are next,” Erdogan said, adding their number one priority was to form a safe zone in the country.
Erdogan reiterated that Turkey does not have any plans to stay in Syria after the operations end, saying Turkey’s only goal is to “clear this region of terrorism”.
“The goal is to establish a safe, terror-free zone of 4 to 5,000 kilometers, and to prevent migration from Syria, and ensure the return of [Syrian] people who live now in our camps.
“Of course, in order to do this, we also would like to almost build new cities there. I have shared this with Mr. Trump and coalition forces, including Germany in particular,” he added.
“The next step is to establish a no-fly zone,” Erdogan said. “Then they [the Syrians] will be able to establish their national army and feel themselves safe.”
“The train-and-equip program is also of utmost importance,” he noted, saying the “FSA is one such army trained and equipped as part of this program,” carried out by Turkey and the U.S.
Manbij was captured by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) last year.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance, which is dominated by the Kurdish YPG militia, is supported by the US as the latter uses them in its war against ISIS.
Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of Kurdish PKK militants who have waged a three-decade insurgency in southeastern Turkey.
The SDF, backed by US coalition, launched a campaign with the ultimate aim of capturing Raqqa in November and succeeded in encircling the city. However, Turkey was angered with these developments and sought, therefore, to cast the YPG out of Manbij and to be the efficient part in Raqqa battle.
Erdogan has spoken about these matters with the US president Donald Trump recently.
In addition, 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, and Erdogan’s mention of this particular point in his speech today reflects the state of cooperation that might start between the two powers, though such a move may anger 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.