Turkey has no intention of staying in Syria: President Erdoğan
ISTANBUL / ANKARA
Turkish troops will not remain in Syria once the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is defeated and they will leave the lands to their “true owners,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said, while vowing to advance the ongoing Euphrates Shield operation to Raqqa after al-Bab.
“Just like Jarablus, al-Rai, Dabiq were cleaned [of ISIL] and the locals returned, al-Bab will be cleared and the people of al-Bab will resettle there,” Erdoğan told reporters in Istanbul on Feb. 12 before departing for an official trip to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Stressing that Turkey aims to establish a “terrorist-free zone” in the region, he said the Euphrates Shield operation aims to eventually head to Manbij and Raqqa after the al-Bab offensive.
“After removing Deash, the YPG [Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units] and the PYD [the Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Union Party] from the region and getting Deash out of Raqqa, it will be too much of a luxury for us to say there. But it is currently too early to talk about such issues,” Erdoğan said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIL.
“There will be no stop after al-Bab. There might be a problem of communication there. The capital of Deash is not al-Bab, but Raqqa. The ultimate goal is to cleanse a 5,000-square-km area,” he added.
Turkish troops and its Free Syrian Army (FSA) allies has entered center of al-Bab town in northern Syria, Erdoğan noted, adding that fall of the jihadist group’s last stronghold in the northern province of Aleppo is “a matter of time.”
“Al-Bab is now besieged from all fronts. Our forces have entered the city center at the moment. They have captured the most important point, the hospital hill. From now on the Deash forces are in the process of entirely leaving al-Bab. I think the rest is a matter of time,” he stated.
Turkey has long advocated a “safe zone” for civilians in northern Syria cleared of ISIL militants and the Kurdish YPG militia, but says such an area would need to be policed by a no-fly zone.
Erdoğan said he had discussed this with the United States and Russia, adding that Turkey was prepared to do the infrastructure work in the zone in order to help prevent migration from Syria and allow those who had fled to Turkey to go home.
Al-Bab is being targeted by both regime forces and an alliance of Turkish troops backed by FSA forces. Since Feb. 6, the town has been besieged by the Syrian army, advancing from the south cut off a road leading into the town, while Turkish troops and allied forces have been advancing from the north, east and west.
Syrian army forces backed by the Russian Air forces have moved into the Tadif region in southeast of al-Bab in Aleppo province, the Russian Defense Ministry stated on Feb. 11, bringing the regime troops close the demarcation line with the Turkish-backed FSA that has been agreed by Ankara and Moscow.
On Jan. 12, Turkey and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding to coordinate their air operations against terrorist targets in Syria. In this regard, the militaries of the two countries established a “contact coordination line” in order to prevent confrontation in northern Syria between Turkish forces and Russian military, along with regime forces.
According to this coordination agreement, a road in the Tadif region southeast of al-Bab is the line for military advance of Turkey-backed Syrian opposition and regime with its allies, according to Turkish sources asking to remain anonymous.
Turkish forces would not advance to the southern part of Tadif, while the regime and it is allies – including Shiite militias - would not advance north of the line in their operations in the city, according to the agreement.
One Turkish soldier was killed and three others were wounded on Feb. 12 in clashes with ISIL in al-Bab, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) stated. The latest casualty raised the number of Turkish troops killed in the Syria offensive to 67, Doğan News Agency reported. On Feb. 9, three Turkish soldiers were killed when a Russian air strike “accidentally” hit their position in an attack targeting ISIL in Al-Bab.
In addition, 245 ISIL targets, including the terror group’s shelters, headquarters, defense positions and vehicles were hit by FSA fighters with Turkish Land Forces’ support, the TSK statement said.
Turkish fighter jets also destroyed 55 buildings used by ISIL as hideouts, two headquarters, two collecting points, a guard station, an arms depot, and a wireless station.
In a separate statement issued later on Feb. 11, the Turkish military said a total of 223 ISIL militants and five PKK/PYD militants had been killed in northern Syria as part of the Euphrates Shield operation over the past week.