Turkish defense minister said Syria’s al-Bab town was almost fully captured, but monitors said violent street battles are still ongoing as ISIS puts out great resistance to prevent the city’s fall.
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.
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.
The Turkish forces reached the outskirts of al-Bab city on 13 November 2016. The first battle against the ISIS was on 21 December 2016 when ISIS prevented Euphrates Shield factions from entering the city, what made the Turkish forces begin a new military operation on 7 February.
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.
Violent clashes, mines, and suicide bombings
“It’s been a long time since we came to Al Bab but today we can say that near complete control has been taken of Al Bab and the city centre has been entered,” Turkish Defence Minister Fikri Isik said on Thursday, quoted by the state-run Anadolu news agency.
“When the search and combing operations are over, we will be able to say that al-Bab has been completely cleared of Daesh [ISIS] elements. This does not need too much more time,” he said.
Earlier, Anadolu said fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) group were clearing mines and explosives devices laid by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group after capturing the center of the flashpoint town.
“Most of Al-Bab has been liberated,” an FSA commander said. “Following a new push on Thursday, 85-90% of the town was under FSA control.”
He said the advance in the city had been slowed down because of ISIS’s booby traps and suicide bombings, some of which had been carried out by children as young as 13 years old.
“The whole of the city is mined,” he said. “I can say that every meter is mined.”
However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group tracking developments in Syria’s conflict, said that more than half of Al-Bab was still under ISIL control and that battles continued.
Turkish defense officials said that rebel forces were still facing “a lot of risky work ahead”, clearing mines and improvised explosive devices, as well as dealing with possible counterattacks.
FSA fighters are now trying to move into smaller villages near Al Bab, the officials added.
Next goals for Ankara
“Al-Bab is about to be captured. Manbij and Raqqah are next,” The Turkish president, Mr. 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.”
Erdogan has supported this idea in his recent phone call with Trump, among other issues that reflect a state of understanding between the two leaders.
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.
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.
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.