Turkish jets hit 15 “targets” in the al-Bab area of northern Syria on Sunday in an operation with Syrian rebels that could foreshadow a push on ISIL’s de facto capital Raqqa, the Turkish military said.
Ten defensive positions, command centres and an ammunition store used by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group were destroyed in the raids, the army said in a statement.
Nine Syrian rebels were killed and 52 wounded during clashes in the area, it added.
According to Al Jazeera’s Osama Bin Javaid, reporting from Gaziantep on the Turkish-Syrian border, the attack on al-Bab “started a few days ago when the Turkish military resumed air strikes on the area”.
“Since then, [the Turkish-backed] FSA fighters have come much closer to retaking al-Bab”, he said, using an acronym to refer to the Free Syrian Army.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that seizing control of al-Bab, around 30km south of the border, is a goal of the operation before targeting Manbij and Raqqa.
Kurdish-led forces recently drove ISIL, also known as ISIS, from Manbij, and Raqqa is considered ISIL’s de facto capital.
“Al-Bab is near the border of Syria and Turkey, and is one of the last remaining [ISIL] strongholds in that area,” Bin Javaid reported.
“It is strategically important because Turkey needs to take this area if they want to reclaim all territory east of the Euphrates River, which was their goal when they first launched Operation Euphrates Shield.”
The Turkish military launched Operation Euphrates Shield on August 24, entering Syria with the aim of both clearing ISIL from the border region and preventing the expansion of a Kurdish-controlled autonomous region.
The Turkish military and its allied rebel forces have so far seized control of about 1,620 sq km of territory, according to the military.
The Turkish army said shelling “neutralised” 10 Kurdish YPG fighters in the past 24 hours as they tried to seize control of the Tal Jijan area, in the eastern countryside of Aleppo province.
The YPG, as the People’s Protection Units are kniown, is the primary ground partner for the US-led coalition in its battle against ISIL in Syria.
Ankara claims the YPG is an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency in Turkey’s southeast for nearly three decades and is designated as a “terrorist” group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a loose coalition of rebel groups led primarily led by the YPG, recently announced the beginning of its own offensive to retake Raqqa from ISIL.
Both Turkey and the SDF – regional rivals due to tensions between Anakara and the YPG – are vying to lead the operation to push ISIL out of its stronghold in Syria.
If the Turkish military and its allied rebel forces manage to take al-Bab, they will be well-positioned to move on Raqqa.
Andreas Krieg, a researcher at the Near East Centre for Security and Strategy at King’s College London, told Al Jazeera that “Turkey did not want the YPG or the SDF to take more control of land [in Syria], which is why their military got involved [in Syria] in the first place”.
With multiple, unaligned armed forces simultaneously pushing towards Raqqa, efforts to take the city from ISIL are bound to be complicated.
“After taking al-Bab, which [the Turkish military] hopes is not that far away, they will take on Raqqa. But Raqqa is much more complicated because of the formation of forces in and around Raqqa. There are many sides there, not just the SDF, but the FSA, and others,” said Al Jazeera’s Bin Javaid.