Turkish warplanes attack ISIL stronghold in northern Syria as rebels battle each other north of Aleppo
Turkish warplanes on Monday struck ISIL positions in and near the northern Syrian town of Al Bab while Ankara-backed Syrian opposition fighters inched closer to the town, poised to begin an assault to drive out the extremist group from one of its largest remaining strongholds in the country.
The air strikes and the shelling killed three people and wounded 30 others, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group that tracks Syria’s civil war.
“There is nothing between us and Al Bab,” said one of the rebels, a commander in one of the groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner taking part in the Turkey-backed Euphrates Shield operation in north Syria that began in August.
“If not in hours then in a very few days we will be inside Al Bab,” the commander said, declining to be identified.
Separately, there were reports that factions of the Turkish-backed Syrian insurgents clashed in the town of Azaz on Monday as inter-rebel tensions spilled over, playing to president Bashar Al Assad’s advantage with the government tightening its grip on rebel-held eastern Aleppo.
The confrontation in Azaz, near the Turkish border, pitted a prominent FSA rebel group, the Levant Front, against factions that also fight under the FSA banner and the Islamist Ahrar Al Sham, sources on both sides said.
The Observatory for said headquarters and checkpoints held by the Levant Front had been seized in the fighting, which a Levant Front official said had forced the group to withdraw some fighters from a battle with ISIL in the nearby city of Al Bab.
The fighting in Azaz, some 60 km north of Aleppo, prompted Turkey, which backs a number of FSA rebel groups, to close the border crossing at Oncupinar. Rebel officials described the fighting as a blow to the opposition in the Aleppo region. Many of the insurgent groups operating in the Azaz area also have a presence in eastern Aleppo, where rebel groups had also clashed on November 2.
The Syrian army backed by Russian air strikes and Shiite militias including Lebanon’s Hizbollah have been waging a fierce campaign against the insurgents in the city, which was the country’s most populous before the war.
Rebel infighting has been a major weakness of the anti-Assad revolt since its earliest days, with factions divided by both ideology and local power struggles.
Al Bab is fast becoming a major faultline in the war in northern Syria, bringing FSA rebels backed by Turkish armour closer than ever to frontlines held by the Syrian government and its Iranian and Russian allies in nearby Aleppo.
Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reported 15 air strikes against ISIL in Al Bab on Monday, saying they destroyed two command centers, an arms depot and two buildings used as headquarters, as well as 10 defensive positions.
Also, the Aleppo Media Centre, an activist collective, said Turkey-backed opposition fighters captured three villages on Monday northwest of Al Bab and another village northeast of the town. The Observatory confirmed that four villages near Al Bab were taken, adding that the Turkey-backed fighters have captured 29 villages in the Al Bab area over the past week.
The push has helped Turkish troops and opposition fighters inch closer to Al Bab, where a long battle with ISIL is expected to take place soon after the militants took over town more than two years ago.
The stepped-up campaign by Turkey comes after Ankara first sent ground forces into northern Syria during the summer, vowing to clear the border area both of ISIL and the US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, which it views as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey.
Since then, Turkish troops and opposition fighters allied with them have captured wide areas along the border with Turkey, cutting ISIL fighters off in their self-declared caliphate from the rest of the world. They have also captured dozens of towns and villages in northern Syria.