Turkey urges international air support for its assault on ISIL-held Syria town

Turkish forces have suffered increasing casualties in recent weeks as they support pro-Ankara Syrian rebels in a fierce battle for Al Bab

Turkish tanks and armoured personnel carriers move toward the Syrian border in Karkamis, Turkey, on August 25, 2016. Halit Onur Sandal/AP Photo
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ISTANBUlL // Turkey on Monday called for international air support for its assault on the ISIL-held Syrian town of Al Bab, where its troops are facing tough resistance from the extremists.

Turkish forces have suffered increasing casualties in recent weeks as they support pro-Ankara Syrian rebels in a fierce battle for the town.

Turkey is part of the US-led coalition against ISIL in Syria and lets western war planes use its Incirlik air base as a hub for air raids.

“As for our operations in Al Bab, the international coalition should assume its responsibilities, especially where air support is concerned,” said Ibrahim Kalin, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman.

“The weather conditions can sometimes entail delays. But the absence of air support when there is no valid reason is unacceptable.”

The United States and its allies have been conducting air strikes against ISIL targets in Syria but there have been no reports of them assisting the Turkish campaign.

Turkey is reported to have deployed more tanks and artillery to its border with Syria at the weekend and to have sent 500 commandos to Al Bab in readiness for a final fight for Al Bab.

The army on Monday accused ISIL of killing 31 civilians as they tried to leave the town.

Thirty-six Turkish soldiers have died in Syria since August 24, when Ankara launched a military operation to clear the border area of ISIL militants and US-backed Kurdish militia who are fighting the extremists. Sixteen of those deaths were in the past week.

ISIL last week circulated a video purportedly showing two Turkish soldiers captured in Syria being burned alive. Ankara has made no comment on the video, although it has admitted that three soldiers were being held by ISIL.

Turkey on Monday also offered to act as a mediator between the Syrian government and opposition groups in preparation for peace talks to end the wider war in Syria.

“We must find a way to stop this bloodiest war of the modern era,” Mr Kalin said. “It’s of the utmost importance to be constructive and focus on solving the problem, and that is our approach.”

Turkey, Russia, Iran agreed in Moscow last week to follow a joint approach to Syria that includes seeking a ceasefire and holding peace talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana. They offered to act as guarantors of any peace deal to end a conflict that has killed more than 300,000 people and sent millions fleeing to neighbouring countries and to Europe.

While Turkey has backed rebels groups seeking to remove Syrian president Bashar Al Assad, Russia and Iran are allies of Mr Al Assad.

Mr Kalin said the date of the talks and the list of participants had not been decided.

Russia said on Friday that the first meeting would be held in mid-January and that the Syrian government, “moderate” opposition, the Kurds and forces on the ground including rebels that are not part of extremist group would be invited.

Syrian government forces backed by Russia and Iran this month retook the city of Aleppo, whose eastern districts had been held by rebels since 2012. It marked one of Russia’s biggest victories since it joined the Syrian war last year in support of Mr Al Assad and against rebel groups backed by the US, Turkey, Gulf and European states.

Mr Putin has thanked Turkey as well as Iran for their role in the capture of Aleppo. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, Turkey restricted the flow of rebel weapons across its border.

Turkey also helped to broker and guarantee a deal for tens of thousands of rebels and civilians to leave eastern Aleppo in safety.

The United Nations, whose efforts to stage Syria peace talks collapsed earlier this year because of continued fighting, has announced a new round will be held in February. The talks in Kazakhstan would not replace the UN-led efforts in Geneva, according to Russia and Turkey.

Mr Kalin said diplomatic efforts for ceasefire across Syria were continuing, with talks between the Turkish and Russian presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers. “Our aim here is to make sure the ceasefire is reached and systematically enforced in all of Syria. Our ultimate aim is to reach a political transition process.”

However, Russia has opposed efforts to force Mr Al Assad from power. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said last week that Turkey and Iran had agreed that “the number one priority shouldn’t be regime change but the task of suppressing the terrorist threat” in Syria.

* Agence France-Presse and Bloomberg News