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ANKARA – Thousands of Turkish soldiers are readying to launch an offensive on hundreds of ISIS terrorists trapped in a Syrian town after the connection with their de-facto capital Raqqa has been cut.

As many as 8,000 Turkish soldiers were deployed for the ongoing Euphrates Shield operation that is being conducted against ‘Islamic State of Iraq and Levant’ (ISIS), or Daesh, in al-Bab district of Syria, after 14 Turkish soldiers were martyred on Akil Mountain.

Using jets and artillery, Turkish officials claimed to have killed scores of ISIS members following the shooting dead of 39 people in an attack on New Year revellers claimed by the terrorist group.

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The fresh ground assault is being led by members of the Free Syria Army, which has carved out a swath of influence for Ankara in northern Syria as its troops have pushed towards al-Bab. Also, three military bases were built before the attack was initiated, according to the reports in Turkish media.

Earlier this week, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said that a Turkish-backed offensive by Syrian rebels to take al-Bab from ISIS should be finished soon.

In a televised speech Wednesday, Erdogan also said he was determined that other areas of Syria, including the town of Manbij, should be cleared by the Turkish-backed forces, referring to a town 50 km (30 miles) east of al-Bab.

Isolation of al-Bab

The strategy of the new operation that is to be conducted by the Turkish military aims to cut Daesh’s links to Raqqa, their de-facto capital, to prevent any reinforcements from reaching the terrorist organization.

Meanwhile, 350 to 500 Daesh terrorists, who were trapped in al-Bab, are attempting to camouflage themselves by letting women and children enter their main headquarters.

Turkish soldiers are taking necessary precautions to prevent Daesh terrorists from attempting to harm the water pipes in order to prevent the passage of the tanks.

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On Thursday, Turkish warplanes and artillery have struck Daesh targets in Syria, “neutralizing” 38 of the group’s terrorists.

In a round-up of its military operations over the last 24 hours in support of opposition in northern Syria, the army said air strikes by Turkish fighter jets on 104 Daesh targets destroyed shelters, command centers, weapons and vehicles.

Euphrates Shield operation

The Euphrates Shield operation was launched between the Turkish Armed Forces and the Free Syrian Army, with the aim to sweep Daesh from Syria, and has been running for 136 days. More than 1,000 terrorists have been neutralized since its launch on August 24.

Also, a 2,000-square-kilometer area has been cleared from terrorists so far.

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Why is Turkey so focused on Syria’s al-Bab?

Al-Bab means “gate” in Arabic. It is also a name for a relatively small town in Aleppo province. Al-Bab is located 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of Aleppo, 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of the Turkish border, and it had a population of 63,069 in 2004 who were mostly Sunni Muslim Arabs.

From the military point of view, this strategically unimportant town has become the location where the Turkish army has suffered heavy casualties. The casualties inflicted upon the Turkish Armed Forces has surpassed those of the Americans and Russians, who had militarily engaged much earlier than Turkey and in a much wider zone.

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The difficulties faced by the Turkish military led President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to accuse the United States and the coalition of supporting terrorist organizations. Speaking in Ankara, he said, “We have now encircled the terrorist Daesh [the Islamic State (IS)] from all four sides at al-Bab. The coalition sources, unfortunately, are not keeping their promises. Even in that, we will not change our course. It is impossible for us to retract. They [the United States and the coalition] were accusing us of supporting [IS]. Now they support terrorist groups including [IS], YPG [People’s Protection Units] and PYD [Democratic Union Party]. It’s very clear. We have confirmed evidence, with pictures, photos and videos.”

Turkey’s newfound alliance on the Syrian battleground is with Russia, and Ankara is involved with the trilateral (Moscow, Tehran and Ankara) initiative to resolve the Syria question.

Over the last few couple of months, Turkey cooperated with Russia for Aleppo and signed the Moscow Declaration, which acknowledged the legitimacy and the rights of sovereignty of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

After the fall of Aleppo to the regime (with Ankara’s assistance), taking al-Bab from IS serves as a pretext for preventing the establishment of the Kurdish corridor adjacent to Turkey’s border with Syria.

From al-Bab, in the vicinity of Aleppo, one needs to cross the entire landmass of Asia Minor to reach the Black Sea coast.

Al-Bab, which until recently was an unheard-of northern Syrian town, has become the source of never-heard strategic assessments. However, the underlying reason behind Turkey’s focus on this Syrian town appears to be more about the Kurdish PYD and YPG rather than IS, which still holds the town.