Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters resumed a major offensive inside the Daesh-held city of Al-Bab today, a day after they broke through Daesh defences in its remaining stronghold in Aleppo province.
A Syrian opposition commander fighting alongside Turkish forces in the Ankara-backed “Euphrates Shield” operation said fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), working with Turkish commanders, were moving forward from territory near the western gates of the city they had stormed yesterday.
“The battles began a short while ago to complete what had been achieved yesterday,” said a commander of a leading FSA group fighting in Al-Bab, speaking anonymously to Reuters.
Northeast of Al-Bab, they added, they also regained control of two key villages they had repeatedly been pushed out of in past fighting by a succession of suicide attacks. The Turkish military said today they had killed 44 militants in aerial and artillery strikes and clashes in northern Syria.
The advance into Al-Bab threatens an important Daesh stronghold, whose fall would deepen Turkish influence in an area of northern Syria where it has created a de facto buffer zone.
Syrian government forces have also advanced on Al-Bab from the south, bringing them close to their Turkish and opposition enemies in one of the most complex battlefields of the conflict that will enter its sixth year next month. But Turkey said international coordination was under way to prevent clashes with the Syrian forces.
Turkish commanders gave the green light for a large-scale push into Al-Bab after the Syrian army and its allies made rapid gains that brought them to its southern outskirts, another opposition official told Reuters.
“Turkish commanders took a decision with us to speed the operation after the regime came too close to the city,” he said.
Al-Bab has been a major target of a Turkish offensive launched in northern Syria last August to drive Daesh away from the border and prevent further gains by US-backed Kurdish militia that are also fighting the group. The Kurdish YPG are leftist militants who are linked to Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU.
Al-Bab is just 30 kilometres from the Turkish border, and mere kilometres from Assad regime-held Aleppo. Its proximity to Aleppo and the Turkish government’s focus on Al-Bab rather than relieving the siege on Aleppo in December led to many to criticise Ankara for seemingly failing the opposition there.
Turkish forces and their allies have however faced fierce resistance from the militants, for whom the town of Al-Bab has been a major source of funding and a major economic hub.