DAMASCUS, The Syrian army said that recent advances against Daesh northeast of Aleppo were a starting point for further operations to drive the group back and extend government control in the area.

The army’s general command said in a statement it had recently recaptured more than 30 towns and farms, confirming advances towards the town of al-Bab which have brought government forces close to areas where Turkish-backed fighters are separately fighting .

A rapid advance by the Syrian army towards al-Bab risks sparking a confrontation with Turkey as Damascus seeks to stop its neighbour penetrating deeper into a strategically important area of northern Syria.

Northern Syria is one of the most complicated battlefields of the multi-sided Syrian war, with Daesh now being fought there by the Syrian army, Turkey and its rebel allies, and an alliance of U.S.-backed Syrian militias.

In less than two weeks, Syrian army units have moved to within 6 km of al-Bab, a city that is also being targeted in a campaign waged by the Turkish military and its allies, groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner.

If a clash does occur, it would be the first time Syrian government forces have confronted the Turkish army on the ground in northern Syria since Turkey launched its operation in August.

Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, has carried out air strikes targeting Daesh in the al-Bab area in support of both sides, underlining big shifts in the diplomatic landscape.

The attack is led by the army’s elite Tiger Force, with intelligence support from a command centre in Aleppo staffed partly by Iranian advisors, a pro-Assad source said. The army campaign was receiving Russian air cover “when asked for”.

Assad has been backed in the war by an array of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias, including Hezbollah, and the Russian air force.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based group reporting on the war, said the Turkey-backed forces had made new advances to the southwest of al-Bab, calling this an effort to halt the gains by Syrian government forces.

Turkey launched its campaign in Syria, “Euphrates Shield”, in order to secure its frontier from Daesh and halt the advance of the powerful Kurdish YPG militia. Helping rebels to topple Assad is no longer seen as a priority for Ankara.

The Euphrates Shield campaign has carved out an effective buffer zone controlled by Turkey-backed rebel groups, obstructing the YPG’s plans of linking up Kurdish controlled areas in northeastern and northwestern Syria.

Turkey sees the YPG as a terrorist group and a threat to its stability.

The YPG and allied militia are receiving air support from a U.S.-led coalition because they are also fighting Daesh, which has declared swathes of Syrian territory part of its “caliphate” that also stretches into Iraq.

Turkey has criticised the coalition for what it sees as insufficient air support for the ground offensive, while welcoming Russian air strikes coordinated with it in the al-Bab area this month.

“We are carrying out our efforts with the coalition forces, and Russia provides support from time to time as well,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said last week.

Al-Bab is located 40 km (25 miles) northeast of Aleppo, where Assad defeated rebels in December, his biggest victory of the war.

Assad has vowed to retake all of Syria, though large areas are out of his control and he is still heavily dependent on military support from his foreign allies.

Turkey has said progress by its rebel allies in al-Bab has been slowed by efforts to avoid civilian casualties. The Observatory has blamed Turkish bombardment for heavy civilian casualties, however.

Erdogan in November forecast that al-Bab would fall quickly, and said last week Daesh was suffering “serious blood losses” there.

“We should finish the job in al-Bab swiftly and not go any deeper. The efforts are in this direction,” he said.

Fierce Daesh resistance including car bomb attacks have inflicted a heavy toll on Turkish troops. Five were killed and nine wounded on Jan 20 near the city. Another Turkish soldier was killed on Sunday.

A senior Turkish security official said the campaign was not going slowly, but according to plan. “The circumstances change as we go deeper,” the official said.

“We are not in a rush in al-Bab. There are many conditions to consider such as the weather, the fact this is new terrain for our troops. We’d rather go slowly but strongly with a minimum of casualties,” the official said.

Source: Nam News Network

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DAMASCUS, The Syrian army said that recent advances against Daesh northeast of Aleppo were a starting point for further operations to drive the group back and extend government control in the area.The army's general command said in a statement it had recently recaptured more than 30 towns and farms,...