AMMAN: Turkish-backed Syrian rebels were locked in “ferocious” battles with Islamic State fighters just inside the western limits of al-Bab on Wednesday after breaking through IS defenses in an overnight offensive to storm the northeast Aleppo city.
Al-Bab, roughly 40km northeast of Aleppo city and 30km south of the Turkish border, is the last major IS holding in Aleppo province.
Ankara launched its broad Euphrates Shield offensive to clear Islamic State from territory south of the Turkish border with Syria in August 2016. A secondary aspect of the mission, fought by Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Turkish ground forces, is to limit Kurdish territorial ambitions along the Turkish border.
Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters along with Turkish special forces, artillery and warplanes within Euphrates Shield broke into al-Bab from the west on Wednesday after launching a three-pronged attack around 10pm Tuesday night.
By the time the sun rose, Euphrates Shield forces had advanced within the western entrance to al-Bab and taken control of the National Hospital, Youth Housing area, Daleel roundabout and the strategic al-Aqeel hill overlooking the city, rebel sources told Syria Direct.
It was the farthest that Turkish-backed FSA forces have advanced into al-Bab since the campaign to recapture it began last November.
While the brunt of the fighting centers around the western outskirts of al-Bab, simultaneous battles continue in the IS-held towns of Qabaseen and Bazaa, northeast and east of the city.
“The fighting is intense and has not paused,” Haithem Hamou, a spokesman for al-Jabha a-Shamiyah, one of the FSA factions participating in the offensive, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “IS heavily mined the area and there are extensive networks of tunnels and trenches.”
The extensive fortifications around al-Bab have made its capture difficult for Euphrates Shield forces. Following relatively swift early advances and victories by Ankara-backed fighters in Jarablus and Dabiq last year, FSA-Turkish forces then struggled to break into the city.
“The battle for al-Bab is not simple,” said rebel spokesman Hamou. For weeks, “we had been attempting from multiple fronts to open a breach through which to storm the city.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Euphrates Shield forces were locked in fighting with IS, but Ankara-backed forces had not lost ground since their overnight advance, rebel sources said.
“Of course, IS is ferociously battling the advance,” said Mustafa Seejaree, head of the political office for Liwa Moutasem, another Euphrates Shield faction.
Turkey’s state media agency Anadolu reported that two Turkish soldiers participating in the al-Bab battles were killed on Wednesday in an IS attack that left 15 others wounded.
The same report alleged that “58 Daesh [Islamic State] terrorists” had been “neutralized” over the past 24 hours.
Airstrikes by Turkish and coalition aircraft are reportedly supporting and facilitating the recent Euphrates Shield battles near al-Bab, according to Turkish military sources.
The Turkish General Staff stated on Wednesday that Ankara’s jets had “conducted 65 air raids and destroyed 58 buildings” in northern Syria, Anadolu reported. Over the same 24-hour period, the General Staff claimed that United States-led coalition planes “conducted seven air raids” in the al-Bab area.
Euphrates Shield fighters on the Bazaa front, 2.5km east of al-Bab. Photo courtesy of Qasioun.
The Coalition has not yet reported which strikes it carried out during the period of the latest Euphrates Shield push for al-Bab. However, the strike release for the previous day, February 7, listed six airstrikes against IS positions near al-Bab.
In a Tuesday night phone call between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and United States President Donald Trump, the two heads of state reportedly “agreed to act together on the [IS]-held Syrian cities of al-Bab and Raqqa,” according to Anadolu.
While Euphrates Shield fighters and their Turkish backers battle IS inside the western city limits of al-Bab and attack from positions farther afield to the east and northeast, Syrian regime forces and their allies are steadily driving northwards towards the city, rolling through IS-held villages.
In mid-January, Syrian regime forces launched their own offensive for al-Bab, led by the Syrian Arab Army’s Tiger Forces. After making steady northwards advances, loyalist forces earlier this week encircled IS fighters in al-Bab by fire-cutting the last road connecting the city to the self-professed caliphate’s capital in Raqqa.
As of Wednesday, regime forces held positions roughly 3km south of al-Bab.
The swift regime advance, accompanied by similar movements by FSA forces and their Turkish backers, portend a potential future confrontation between the two forces in the race to capture the city.
“Any possible confrontation with the regime would be dictated by the reality on the ground,” rebel spokesman Hamou told Syria Direct.
While potential conflict between rank-and-file ground forces remains a possibility, warmer relations between Turkey and Russia appear to be developing on the ground in northeast Aleppo. In mid-January, the two countries conducted their first joint airstrikes against IS in al-Bab.
“Russian-Turkish coordination doesn’t mean anything to us,” Hamou said. “Our only goal is to drive out IS.”