Erdogan says Turkish operation in Syria will continue to Raqqa

Turkish forces and members of the Free Syrian Army at the al Baza'a village on the outskirts of al-Bab town in Syria on Feb 4, 2017.
Turkish forces and members of the Free Syrian Army at the al Baza'a village on the outskirts of al-Bab town in Syria on Feb 4, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

ISTANBUL (REUTERS) - President Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday (Feb 12) that the final goal of a Turkish military incursion into Syria was not just to retake the city of al-Bab from the Islamic State group (ISIS), but to cleanse a border region, including Raqqa, of the extremists.

Turkish-backed Syrian rebels are pressing a major offensive on al-Bab, 30km south of the Turkish border. The advance risks putting them in direct conflict with Syrian government forces who are closing in on the city from the south.

"The ultimate goal is to cleanse a 5,000-square-km area," Mr Erdogan told a news conference before his departure on an official visit to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

He said Turkish forces had no intention of staying in Syria once the area had been cleared of both ISIS and Kurdish YPG militia fighters, whom Turkey sees as a hostile force.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, said rebels backed by heavy Turkish air strikes fought ISIS north and south-west of al-Bab on Sunday.

Turkish forces have advanced into the city from the west in recent days, and now control around 10 per cent of the city and all of its western suburbs, the Observatory said.

Syrian government forces and allied militia have also made gains south of al-Bab, near the town of Tadef, since Friday, reaching an area 1.5km from the city, it said.

Turkey believes recent ISIS attacks in Turkey, including a New Year's Day shooting in an Istanbul nightclub that killed 39 people, have been steered from al-Bab and Raqqa, and it regards a clear-out of the towns as a national security priority.

Turkey has long advocated a "safe zone" for civilians in northern Syria cleared of ISIS militants and the Kurdish YPG militia, but says such an area would need to be policed by a no-fly zone.

Mr Erdogan's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said last week that Turkey had presented a detailed plan to oust ISIS from Raqqa and that strategy discussions with US President Donald Trump's administration were under way.

Turkey has repeatedly said it wants to be part of the US-led operation to retake Raqqa, but does not want the YPG, which has been backed by Washington, to be involved.