Homeless: A displaced boy carries bread at a shelter in Jibreen, on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, on Wednesday. Picture: REUTERS
Homeless: A displaced boy carries bread at a shelter in Jibreen, on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, on Wednesday. Picture: REUTERS

Beirut — The Syrian army signalled on Thursday it would press on with operations against Islamic State (IS) northeast of Aleppo, in a veiled warning to Turkey, which backs a separate military campaign in northern Syria.

Syrian government forces have rapidly driven IS back in the past two weeks, advancing to within 6km of the city of Al-Bab that the jihadists are fighting to hold.

The army’s gains risk sparking a confrontation with Turkey, which has sent tanks and war aircraft across the border to support Syrian insurgents who are trying to seize al-Bab in a separate offensive.

Turkey’s offensive, launched in 2016, aims to drive IS and Syrian Kurdish fighters away from its borders, as Turkey sees both as a security threat.

Syria’s military general command said government forces and their allies had recaptured more than 30 towns and villages from IS, and 16km of the highway linking Aleppo to al-Bab to the northeast.

"This achievement widens the secured areas around Aleppo city and is the starting point for [further] operations against Daesh [IS]," a military spokesman said. The military "confirms its commitment to … protecting civilians and maintaining the unity of the territory" of Syria, the spokesman added, in a remark apparently directed at Turkey.

Turkey’s offensive has brought the rebel factions it backs, some of which have also fought against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Aleppo, to the outskirts of Al-Bab, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based group that monitors the war, said.

Ankara denied last week Turkey would hand over Al-Bab to Assad after driving out IS.

A source in the military alliance fighting in support of Assad said on Wednesday the Syrian army aimed to reach
al-Bab and was ready "to clash with the FSA [Free Syrian Army]" fighting alongside the Turkish army if necessary.

Turkey launched its Euphrates Shield campaign in Syria to secure its frontier from IS and halt the advance of the powerful Kurdish YPG militia.

The 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. The YPG, backed by the US, is separately also battling against IS, and Washington’s backing for the Kurdish fighters has created tension with Turkey.

Islamic State Assaults

Fighting between Syrian forces, backed by Russia, and IS has meanwhile intensified elsewhere in the country in recent weeks, with the group on the offensive in several Syrian areas while it is driven back inside its Mosul stronghold in Iraq.

Government forces clashed with the militants west of the historic city of Palmyra late on Wednesday, in an attempt to recover ground recently lost, the observatory said.

The army took over farmland around the village of al-Tayas, 50km west of Palmyra and near the T4 air base, but dozens of Syrian troops had been killed in the latest clashes in the area, the observatory said.

The jihadists seized Palmyra and some nearby oil fields in December for a second time in the nearly six-year Syrian conflict.

Reuters

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