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Islamic State’s last stronghold in Aleppo province falls to Turkish-backed rebels

AMMAN: Syrian rebels backed by Turkey finally captured the battered […]

AMMAN: Syrian rebels backed by Turkey finally captured the battered northeastern city of al-Bab on Thursday after more than three months of fighting, FSA sources told Syria Direct, winning the last major Islamic State (IS) holding in Aleppo province.

Islamic State fighters withdrew from al-Bab to neighboring towns on Thursday following “violent battles,” rebel sources told Syria Direct. 

Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces accompanied by Turkish special forces and supported by Turkish and United States-led coalition airstrikes fought for three and a half months to take the city, which lies roughly 40km northeast of Aleppo city and 30km south of the Turkish border.

A final push to capture al-Bab was launched earlier this month, but initial progress was stymied by dense IS fortifications, tunnel networks and IEDs.

On Thursday afternoon, “IS was driven out after violent battles,” Haithem Hamou, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigade al-Jabha a-Shamiyah told Syria Direct.

Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik said that “almost all” of al-Bab had been captured on Thursday, state media agency Anadolu reported. After the city has been swept for explosives and any remaining IS forces, “we will be able to say that Al-Bab has been completely cleared,” he added. 

Rebels said Islamic State fighters withdrew to their nearby territory in the towns of Tadef, Bazaa and Qabaseen in north Aleppo province on Thursday. Turkish-backed FSA forces then attacked those three towns and at time of publication said they had captured Bazaa.

IS did not release any statements about Thursday’s battles in and around al-Bab.

The battle for al-Bab falls within Turkey’s Euphrates Shield offensive, launched in August 2016 to drive the Islamic State out of territory south of the Turkish border. The offensive, fought by FSA and Turkish ground forces, also aims to limit Kurdish territorial ambitions in the same area.

A separate offensive for al-Bab, launched by Syrian regime forces in mid-January, brought the Syrian Arab Army’s Tiger Forces to positions 3km south of the city. However, the SAA advance stalled at the IS-held town of Tadef last week.

Operations to detect and remove landmines and IEDs continued throughout al-Bab on Thursday, rebels told Syria Direct. Celebratory gunfire could be heard in the city, but no clashes, they said.

Euphrates Shield forces are also searching for any IS fighters remaining in the city, “for fear they could be hiding in tunnels or houses,” said rebel spokesman Hamou.

Three IS fighters were captured during the battles and turned over to Turkish forces, Mahmoud Abu Hamzah, the commander of the FSA’s Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin told Syria Direct on Thursday.

FSA factions claim that between 34 and 40 IS fighters were killed during the final battles in the city on Thursday.

A video filmed by FSA commander Abu Hamzah while driving through al-Bab on Thursday and provided to Syria Direct shows extensive destruction inside the city. On some streets, white stone buildings are still standing, singed by explosions and riddled with holes, windows blasted out. Other parts of the city are little more than piles of rubble and leaning, half-collapsed buildings.

Turkish, Syrian, Russian and US-led coalition warplanes hammered al-Bab and the surrounding countryside in recent months during the battle for the city. Heavy Turkish artillery fire struck al-Bab daily and intensified in recent weeks as Euphrates Shield fighters moved in on the city.

IS-affiliated Amaq agency claimed Tuesday that “Turkish bombardment” had killed “more than 385 residents and injured 376” since the battle for the city began in October.

 Minesweeping inside al-Bab on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Liwa al-Moutasem.

Some 30,000 residents of al-Bab fled the bombing of the city and IS rule since December 2016, according to the United Nations. 

Rebel spokesman Hamou told Syria Direct that advancing forces did not encounter civilians on the street, but that there were “small numbers” of civilians sheltering in the basements of their homes inside al-Bab.

‘The next step’

While battles continue in towns immediately surrounding al-Bab, Turkish-backed Euphrates Shield forces are studying their next move.

Three Euphrates Shield sources told Syria Direct on Thursday that they believe the next target of the Euphrates Shield campaign would be the city of Manbij, 40 kilometers northeast of al-Bab.

Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured Manbij from the Islamic State in August 2016 with the support of the US-led coalition.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a televised interview earlier this week that Euphrates Shield forces would turn towards Manbij after capturing al-Bab “because Manbij is an Arab-affiliated area” and as such should be “cleared of these terrorist organization elements,” referring to Kurdish forces in the city.

Driving the SDF from the city falls within the stated purpose of the Euphrates Shield offensive to clear Kurdish forces from areas close to the Turkish border. 

It was not immediately clear what the position of the United States would be in the event of a conflict between two forces that have both previously received direct coalition support.

The commander of the Manbij Military Council, Adnan Abu Amjad, told Al Jazeera this month that his forces would “defend our city with all the strength we can find” in the event of a Turkish attack. 

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