Erdogan says army close to taking IS-held town

BEIRUT: Turkish troops backed by Syrian rebel fighters have entered the centre of the IS group bastion of Al Bab and will soon capture it, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday. The town in Syria’s Aleppo province is the last stronghold of the extremist group in the region, and has also been the target of an assault by Syrian government forces. The Syrian opposition meanwhile announced the formation of a delegation to attend a new round of UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva on February 20.
IS has come under pressure from simultaneous offensives in both Syria and Iraq, where the group seized large swathes of territory in 2014.
Erdogan, speaking in Istanbul, said Al Bab “is now besieged from all fronts”.
“Our forces entered the centre,” he added, saying it was “only a matter of time” before the alliance of Turkish forces and rebels took control of the town.
“IS forces have begun leaving Al Bab completely,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
Turkish forces and allied rebels entered Al Bab for the first time on Saturday, from the west, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The monitor reported heavy clashes inside western Al Bab on Sunday, as well as on the northern edge of the town, where Turkish forces and rebels were advancing but had not yet entered the town.
One Turkish soldier was killed and two soldiers wounded in clashes with IS fighters, the Turkish Dogan news agency reported.
That raised to 67 the number of Turkish soldiers killed since Ankara began its Operation Euphrates Shield in August, targeting both IS and the Kurdish YPG militia.
Al Bab has been a key target for both Operation Euphrates Shield, but also Syrian government forces, and Ankara now finds itself effectively jointly besieging the town with President Bashar al Assad’s forces despite opposing his government.
Syria’s army has advanced towards Al Bab from the south, and on Monday severed the last road leading into the town, completing its encirclement.
Erdogan added that Al Bab was “not our final target,” hinting that Ankara may participate in the fight to recapture IS’s de facto Syrian capital Raqa.
More than 310,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests, and successive rounds of peace talks have failed to produce a political solution.
Invitations to new talks on February 20 in Geneva have been delayed while the opposition forms its delegation.
On Sunday, the leading components of the political opposition announced a 21-member delegation, with a new delegation head and chief negotiator.
The delegation includes 10 rebel representatives, and will be headed by Nasr al Hariri, a member of the National Coalition, a leading opposition body.
The umbrella High Negotiations Committee (HNC) which has represented the opposition at previous rounds of talks described the delegation as inclusive.
It said it included for the first time representatives from two additional opposition groupings. But representatives from both groups denied they were part of the delegation. In the past, the HNC has opposed the inclusion of the rival opposition groupings in its delegation, accusing members of the coalitions of being too flexible with regard to the Syrian government. — AFP