AMMAN: Turkish-backed Syrian rebels are battling Islamic State fighters and meeting “fierce resistance” two kilometers from the self-proclaimed caliphate’s last major stronghold in Aleppo province on Monday, the second day of a renewed push to capture al-Bab with the support of Ankara’s artillery and warplanes.
“The battle has begun in earnest,” Mahmoud Abu Hamzah, the commander of Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin, a Kurdish Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigade participating in the campaign told Syria Direct on Monday.
Al-Bab, located 30km south of Turkey’s southern border with Syria, is the Islamic State’s last major holding in northeast Aleppo province.
The well-fortified city is the latest objective of Turkish-backed rebels currently fighting within Operation Euphrates Shield, a campaign launched by Turkey in late August to battle not only the Islamic State but also US-backed Kurdish forces, in northern Syria.
Over the past 12 weeks, Syrian rebels and their Turkish backers have reportedly cleared IS from “almost 1,600 square kilometers” of land, Ankara’s Anadolu Agency reported on Monday.
“We have entered the outskirts of al-Bab city,” said Abu Hamzah, after a “very swift advance” with the “heavy” support of Turkish artillery, armored vehicles and warplanes.
Fighting is currently concentrated at a livestock market north of al-Bab. The commander said that more than two dozen Islamic State (IS) fighters were killed there in the battles.
“We are meeting fierce resistance,” he added. Islamic State fighters “are battling with everything they have.”
At least nine FSA fighters have been killed and 52 others injured in recent days, Turkey’s Anadolu Agency reported on Monday, citing a statement by the Turkish Armed Forces. Four Turkish soldiers have also been wounded.
Syrian rebels began the fresh attack to capture al-Bab early Sunday morning. Pushing southward from their territory in northeastern Aleppo province, FSA fighters have now advanced roughly nine kilometers towards al-Bab, leaving them 2km from the city. In the process, they captured sevenvillages and towns, according to the official Euphrates Shield account on Twitter.
FSA fighters and their Turkish backers are not the only ones with eyes on al-Bab. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—which Turkey accuses of links to the PKK—declared their intent to capture the city earlier this year.
Following advances by Kurdish-led forces towards al-Bab from territory they hold west of the city in recent weeks, “Turkish Armed Forces and the Free Syrian Army accelerated operations,” Anadolu reported on Sunday. After the latest FSA advance, it appears virtually impossible for the SDF to move in from the west and take the city.
Now, FSA fighters are in position not only to storm al-Bab, Abu Hamzah told Syria Direct, but also to capture Qabaseen, a Kurdish-majority town roughly seven kilometers to the northeast.