Car bomb kills dozens after Isis driven out of Syrian town
At least 42 civilians and rebel fighters killed in blast in al-Bab, a crucial strategic area vacated this week by Islamic State
Dozens of people have been killed in a car bomb blast in al-Bab, the Syrian town at the centre of a major battle between Turkey-backed rebels and Islamic Statethat saw Isis driven out on Thursday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said the dead included civilians and fighters from the Euphrates Shield operation – an alliance of Syrian groups backed by Turkish firepower and special forces troops which has been battling Isis in the region since last summer.
The bombing happened in the early hours of Friday morning in Sousian village, about five miles north of the centre of al-Bab, where civilians were queueing to return. The death toll rose over the course of Friday to 42, and could yet go higher.
On Thursday rebels said Isis militants had pulled out of al-Bab – the group’s last town in Aleppo province – after weeks of bitter siege and street fighting. The rebels were assisted by Turkish special forces and soldiers as well as fighter jets and tanks.
Al-Bab is a crucial strategic victory for Euphrates Shield, which was announced late last summer to much fanfare and has secured a sweep of territory near the Syrian-Turkish border, eliminating Isis border crossings.
The town was a key forward post for Islamic State used to launch attacks against the rebels in north-west Syria, and is on the road to the de facto Isis capital of Raqqa in the east. It is one of the more densely populated areas in the province outside the city of Aleppo.
The seizure of the town is also a victory for Ankara, which has repeatedly promised that its liberation was close at hand. It limits the westward expansion of the Kurdish paramilitary group known as the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), whichTurkey says is the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a designated terror group fighting an insurgency against the state in Turkey’s south-eastern region.
A source close to Euphrates Shield said the rebels had yet to conduct minesweeping operations to clear out booby traps and explosives as well as sleeper cells left behind by Islamic State, and to begin bringing back basic services to the war-torn town.
Electricity lines are likely to be extended from Turkish territory in Gaziantep province, and water pumping stations on the Euphrates rehabilitated.
The source said the opposition would also have to bring civil society back to the town to counter the radicalising impact of three years of Islamic State hegemony over the town’s inhabitants, and the indoctrination of the youth in Isis schools.
“We have in al-Bab an entire generation raised on the Isis ideology and mentality and civil society will need to treat the children there,” he said.
The key question is where Euphrates Shield will go next. Few inside Syria know the ultimate goal of the operation, but the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said this month the campaign would turn its sights on Raqqa.
If the Turkish-backed forces head east towards the Isis capital, they will encounter the US-backed Kurdish militia in head-on clashes. The next major town along the eastern road is Manbij, which used to be controlled by Isis but is now held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance brokered by the US that includes the YPG and Arab auxiliary forces.
Another question is whether the Turkish-backed forces have the manpower to take on the SDF and Isis, and potentially the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which has made advances in recent weeks near al-Bab.
“We cannot rule out that in the future there will be clashes with the SDF in the eastern Aleppo countryside or in Raqqa, or with the regime in the Aleppo countryside,” the source close to Euphrates Shield said. “We will go to Raqqa regardless of what the international community wants.”
Isis is also under pressure in the Iraqi city of Mosul, where Iraqi forces on Friday entered a western neighbourhood for the first time since the launch of a major offensive in October.
The push on Al-Maamun, a small neighbourhood on the south-western edge of Mosul, came after government troops retook the airport, which commands access to the city from the south, and a nearby military base.
“We have attacked and fully control Ghazlani base, we have also taken Tal al-Rayyan ... and we’re attacking Al-Maamun neighbourhood,” said Sami al-Aridhi, a lieutenant general in Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS).
He told AFP militants attacked his forces with a suicide car bomb in Tal al-Rayyan, a village just outside Mosul, and that three other car bombs were found there.
Aridhi said the CTS, the most-seasoned force in Iraq, had suffered no losses since the renewed push on west Mosul was launched on Sunday. He said some fighters had been wounded, however, including by weaponised drones.