Turkey, Syrian rebels in ‘near complete control’ of Syria’s al-Bab
AA photoTurkish armed forces and allied Syrian rebels have almost total control of the Syrian flashpoint town of al-Bab after entering the center of the former jihadist stronghold, Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık said on Feb. 23.
“It’s been a long time since we entered al-Bab but today we can say that near complete control has been taken of al-Bab and the city center has been entered,” Işık said in İzmir.
Turkey and Ankara-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) members have been seeking to oust the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from al-Bab since last year but have encountered heavy resistance and suffered heavy casualties.
Earlier in the day, state-run Anadolu Agency said Turkish Armed Forces and FSA fighters seized central al-Bab on Feb. 23.
“When the search and combing operations are over, we will be able to say that al-Bab has been completely cleared of Daesh elements,” said Işık, using an Arabic acronym for ISIL. “This does not need too much more time. As of today, the city center has been entered and search and combing operations [for remaining jihadists] have been launched.”
Işık reaffirmed that Turkey was now ready to join any operation by international coalition forces to take the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the extremist group.
But he insisted such a campaign must not include the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).
Işık said such an operation should include pro-Ankara FSA rebels and Raqqa’s own residents.
“Turkey would be able to provide such a coalition operation with the necessary support,” he said.
A rebel commander said al-Bab had been totally liberated, according to Reuters.
“We are announcing al-Bab as completely liberated, and we are now clearing mines from the residential neighborhoods,” said Ahmad Othman, a rebel commander.
“After hours of fighting, we chased out the last remaining [ISIL] rank and file that were collapsing after the fierce shelling of their positions,” he added.
New round of Geneva talks begin
The developments came as a new round of peace talks between the warring sides over the six-year-old Syrian war was launched in Geneva on Feb. 23.
U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura convened his first morning meeting with the delegation of the Syrian government, headed by Bashar al-Ja’afari.
He later met with the head of the opposition delegation in Geneva, Yahya Kadamani, and Nasr Hariri, a senior member of the largest opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition.
The talks are the latest bid to end the country’s catastrophic six-year war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more.
The Geneva talks come after cease-fire discussions in Astana, Kazakhstan, that were coordinated largely by Turkey and Russia, whose air power has supported al-Assad’s forces. In those meetings, the two sides sat face-to-face and a fragile cease-fire has since mostly been holding, though violations occur daily.
Hours after rival delegations arrived, de Mistura admitted there was limited ground for progress on making peace.
“Am I expecting a breakthrough? No, I am not expecting a breakthrough,” the veteran diplomat said, noting that “momentum” toward further talks was likely the best that can be hoped for.
On the eve of the talks an HNC spokesman said the umbrella group wanted face-to-face discussions with government representatives.
“We ask for direct negotiations... It would save time and be proof of seriousness instead of negotiating in [separate] rooms,” Salem al-Meslet told AFP.
Russian President Vladimir Putin voiced hope on Feb. 23 for the success of a political settlement in Syria, saying it would help defeat the “terrorist malaise.”
Putin said at a meeting with Russian mariners that Moscow’s goal in Syria was to help stabilize the legitimate government and fight international terrorism.
Russia has called on al-Assad to stop his bombing campaign while peace talks take place this week, but a political breakthrough on the war remains unlikely, de Mistura said Feb. 22.