Slow going for Turkish-backed forces in north Syria

AP News
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Posted: Feb 11, 2017 12:49 PM

BEIRUT (AP) — Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition forces have managed to capture just one-tenth of a north Syrian town from Islamic State militants, a conflict monitoring group said Saturday, despite reaching its outskirts seven weeks ago.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group told the AP that nine-tenths of al-Bab remains under IS control. The Observatory receives its information from a network of contacts inside the war-torn country.

Meanwhile, rebels and exiled opposition figures appointed Nasr al-Hariri of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition to lead a delegation to U.N.-brokered talks with the Syrian government, planned for Feb. 20 in Geneva.

Also on Saturday, Iran's Supreme National Security Council authorized Russia to fly its fighters over Iranian airspace to support operations in Syria, the state's semi-official Tasnim news agency reported.

In August, Iran confirmed that Russia bombers launched airstrikes from near the Iranian city of Hamedan, 280 kilometers (175 miles) southwest of the Iranian capital, Tehran to hit targets in eastern Syria. Iran is a stanch supporter of the Syrian government.

In al-Bab, Turkish aircraft and artillery pounded IS positions as allied opposition forces grabbed new blocks in the town, according to the Syrian Observatory. Battlefield reports from Syrian opposition forces corroborated the Observatory's al-Bab review.

The Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sham militia announced Saturday on Twitter that opposition forces had taken the city's silos and sports complex in its southwestern districts. The coalition's operations room released a video on social media showing its fighters at the gates of the Hikma hospital. Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group also reported the hospital's capture.

But these amount to just marginal advances in the town, where some 100,000 residents lived before the start of the Syrian civil war, six years ago. Al-Bab lies about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the Turkish border.

Turkey is leading Syrian opposition forces in a broad operation called "Euphrates Shield" against the Islamic State group and U.S.-backed Kurdish forces northern Syria. Turkey wants to clear groups it says are terrorists away from its border, while Syrian opposition forces are looking to secure territory before rival government forces arrive from the south.

Turkey is the opposition's chief backer in Syria's multisided civil war. It has deployed troops, tanks, artillery and its air force inside the country as part of the northern Syria operation.

Turkey's Anadolu news agency began reporting Turkish troop fatalities in al-Bab on Dec. 21. That week, 16 Turkish soldiers were killed in clashes or ambushes by the Islamic State in the town. The military Saturday announced the death of another soldier in the fighting in al-Bab. The death brings the total number of Turkish troops killed in the military operation in northern Syria to 65.

The fighting has exacted a civilian toll as well: According to the Observatory, 267 civilians have been killed by Euphrates Shield artillery and airstrikes on al-Bab and two satellite villages since Dec. 21.

The IS group's Aamaq news agency reported that Turkish, American and Russian warplanes flew more than 80 sorties over the town on Friday and fired 150 artillery rounds.

The three powers are coordinating their aerial campaigns against the Islamic State group and other al-Qaida-linked factions in northern Syria.

Pro-government forces, meanwhile, backed by Russian airpower, are engaged with IS militants in the village of Tadif, about 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) south of al-Bab.

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement Saturday that "in the course of the battle in the area of Tadif, government forces destroyed 650 terrorists, two tanks" and various vehicles fitted with arms and explosives. The figures could not be independently confirmed.

The government, the opposition and their various state backers are gearing up for the resumption of U.N.-brokered talks in Geneva, after the last round stalled in April last year.

Rebels and Western- and Saudi-backed opposition groups in exile are preparing to name 20 delegates to the talks, according to Yahya al-Aridi of the High Negotiations Committee.

Diplomatic contacts picked up between the various sides in December, with rebels and the government pledging to honor a national cease-fire brokered in Ankara.

The truce has not held. The two sides met again for talks in Astana, Kazakhstan last month, ahead of the planned resumption of the Geneva talks in about one week's time.

Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry said Saturday it was inviting government and opposition officials and delegates from Russia, Turkey, and Iran for preparatory talks in Astana on February 16 and 17.

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Associated Press writers James Heintz in Moscow and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.