The Syrian forces clashed with the Turkish-backed rebels on Thursday near the northern city of al-Bab, the first confrontation between the two sides for the control of al-Bab, the last Islamic State (IS) stronghold in northern Syria near the Turkish borders, a monitor group reported.
Violent clashes were reported between the Syrian army backed by the Lebanese Hezbollah group and the Turkish-backed rebels of the Euphrates Shield near al-Bab, as both parties were closing in on the IS stronghold in that city from different directions, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Syrian side is supported by Russian artillery as the rebel side is supported by the Turkish forces and airstrikes.
With the fresh confrontation, Russia’s Defense Ministry said that Russian airstrikes have accidentally killed three Turkish soldiers and injured 11 others in al-Bab on Thursday.
Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed condolences over the accidental loss of lives in the airstrike, in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Earlier in the day, the Observatory said Syrian army is closing in on al-Bab from its southern rim, while Turkish forces and allied rebels are advancing in the northern part of that key city.
The Syrian army and allied fighters have become less than three kilometers from al-Bab, said the report.
As for the Turkish forces, the troops are aiming to divert the attention of the IS militants inside the city, by heavily shelling al-Bab by airstrikes and artillery shelling, according to the Observatory.
The UK-based watchdog group said tens of fighters from the Turkish and IS sides have been killed during the confrontation since Tuesday.
It also added that 315 civilians, including 64 children, have been killed by the Turkish shelling on al-Bab since Nov.13, 2016, the date on which the Turkish-backed rebels reached the outskirts of the city.
Both the Turkish forces and the Syrian ones are fighting separately, as observers said it’s a result of a Russian-Turkish coordination, which was reached when Turkey and Russia sponsored a cease-fire in Syria that went into effect on Dec.30.
But after Thursday’s first-of-its-kind confrontation, and the killing of Turkish soldiers in the process, the prospects of the Turkish-Russian cooperation in the war on IS could become compromised.
For the Turks, al-Bab is important to cut the road in front of the Kurdish dream to link areas under their control in northern Syria.
As for the Syrian army, securing the southern rim of al-Bab will help in protecting the city of Aleppo from IS attacks.
The Syrian army wrested full control over the entire city of Aleppo in December of last year, poising for further military operations in the sprawling countryside of that key province, with the help of the Russian air force and the ground fighters of Hezbollah and other Shiite groups. Enditem