Turkish-backed forces will press on to the Islamic State-held town of al Bab in Syria, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday, emphasising Ankara’s drive to sweep militants and Syrian Kurdish fighters from territory near its border.
Backed by Turkish tanks, special forces and air strikes, a group of rebels fighting under the loose banner of the Free Syrian Army crossed into northern Syria in August and took the border town of Jarablus from Islamic State largely unopposed.
The rebels have since extended those gains and now control an area of roughly 1,270 square km in northern Syria. While Turkey’s initial focus was on driving Islamic State from Jarablus, much of its efforts have been spent on stopping the advance of US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters.
“They say, ‘Don’t go to al Bab’. We are obliged to, we will go there,” Erdogan said in a speech at the opening of an education centre in the northwest province of Bursa. “We have to prepare a region cleansed from terror.”
Erdogan also said that Turkey would do what was necessary with its coalition partners in Syria’s Raqqa, but would not work with the Syrian Kurdish fighters.
Differences over Syria have caused strains between NATO allies Turkey and the United States. Washington is backing the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia in the region, seeing it as an effective partner in the fight against Islamic State. Turkey fears the militia’s advance will embolden Kurdish militants at home.
The outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has carried out a three-decade insurgency that has killed more than 40,000 people, most of them Kurds, in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast.
At least 90 Turkish rockets pounded a group of Kurdish fighters allied to a US-backed militia in northern Syria on Friday, as clashes intensified between two sides both supposed to be fighting Islamic State, a monitor and militia spokesperson said.
Turkey’s military on Saturday confirmed that it had hit 72 Islamic State and 50 Syrian Kurdish fighter targets in northern Syria by early Friday morning.