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Erdogan: We will Stay Until Liberation of Raqqa, Establishment of Safe Zones | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan reviews a guard of honour during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, February 7, 2017. Picture taken February 7, 2017. Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Palace – Reuters

Ankara, Beirut – President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Sunday that Euphrates Shield troops have now besieged Syria’s al-Bab and reached the town’s center.

Speaking at Ataturk International Airport ahead of his departure for Bahrain, the first leg of his four-day to three Gulf countries, he said, “ISIS forces are now in the process of leaving al-Bab.”

Erdogan said that after liberating al-Bab, Turkish troops and Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters would head towards Manbij and Raqqa.

“The goal is to establish a safe, terror-free zone of 4 to 5,000 kilometers, and to prevent migration from Syria, and ensure the return of [Syrian] people who live now in our camps,” the Turkish President said.

He asserted that Turkey does not have any plans to stay in Syria after ISIS is wiped out, adding that the FSA should be Syria’s next national army.

Meanwhile, the Turkish-supported FSA forces continued their infiltration in the city of al-Bab, the stronghold of ISIS in the Aleppo suburbs, northeast Syria, facing a fierce resistance from the organization.

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

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

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

Meanwhile, diplomatic sources and Turkish analysts expressed their discomfort with the latest Russian positions, adding that Moscow was working to secure a presence for the Syrian regime troops around Aleppo.

Speaking with Asharq Al-Awsat, the sources said Russia was starting to worry about the Turkish rapprochement from the new U.S. administration.

At the political level, the Syrian opposition’s readiness to participate in the next round of U.N.-sponsored talks scheduled for Feb. 20 in Geneva was disrupted on Sunday when some bodies of the High Negotiations Committee, such as the National Coordination Committee were split between supporting or opposing participating in the peace talks.

Those bodies not accepting to attend the Geneva talks say the operation is “dummy.”

Divisions then spread from the political to the military level when several participating opposition factions, including Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya and Jaish al-Islam, announced they would not attend the Geneva talks next week.