Erdogan and Assad compete for IS' 'scalp' in al-Bab
Turkey-backed Syrian rebels battling Islamic State group militants continue to advance on al-Bab in Aleppo province following reports on Wednesday of their capture of neighbourhoods in the western outskirts of the contested city.
While the Islamic State group's hold on the city appears to be increasingly tentative, additional advances on al-Bab by pro-regime troops have raised concern over the potential for clashes between Ankara and Damascus backed combatant groups with Turkish President Recep Tayyid Erdogan and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad both keen to claim victory for themselves over IS in the area.
On Friday a video - produced by Syrian rebels who make up part of the Ankara-backed "Euphrates Shield" operation - began circulating on the internet.
It appears to show rebel gunmen outside a hospital, on a dusty street in the outskirts of al-Bab vowing to liberate the city in entirety while denouncing alleged claims made by pro-regime outlets and supporters that the Euphrates Shield's advances had stopped.
While the Euphrates Shield operation is advancing on the western and northern flanks of al-Bab, pro-regime forces are closing in on the city from the south, with reports of fierce fighting in the area on Friday.
|According to The Associated Press Syrian troops and Turkey-backed rebels are now only 3 km from one another.|
According to The Associated Press Syrian troops and Turkey-backed rebels are now only 3 km from one another.
Although Ankara has previously called for Assad to step down from power, and financed opposition groups battling against the Syrian regime, in recent weeks Turkey has also coordinated with Russia, which backs Assad, in conducting airstrikes on IS positions in al-Bab.
Washington has also carried out airstrikes on IS targets in al-Bab where between 800-1000 IS militants are said to remain, according to rebel sources.
On Thursday Russian airstrikes accidentally targeted a building used by Turkish army units in al-Bab as frontlines around the contested city tighten.
Three Turkish soldiers died as a result of the attack, with a further 11 injured, according to a statement from the Turkish military.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is said to have contacted his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Recep Erdogan to express his condolences.
In November 2016 a further three Turkish soldiers were killed in an alleged Syrian regime airstrike in the area, with Ankara voiwing to retaliate at that time.
However if a clash between the Turkey-backed Euphrates Shield operation and pro-Assad forces does occur it will mark the first such occasion since Turkey launched its cross-border operations in August 2016.
The Euphrates Shield operation – which has also clashed with Kurdish armed groups in Syria – began assaults on al-Bab in late 2016. The city is located 20 miles south of Turkey’s border with Syria.
Al-Bab is IS' final major stronghold in Aleppo province.
Erdogan has vowed to fight in the city until its complete liberation from IS.
Current assaults on the city come at a time when Kurdish-led forces, backed by Washington, also currently advancing on the extremist group’s de facto capital of Raqqa, located on the banks of the Euphrates around 180 km east of al-Bab.