Reuters Istanbul, Istanbul, Turkey
Feb 12, 2017, 01.39 PM
The troops will withdraw from Syria once jihadists are defeated in the border region, including Raqqa, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday.
Erdogan insisted that Turkey had no intention of staying in the country once they achieve their aim of "cleansing" Islamic State jihadists and YPG militia fighters.
"The ultimate aim is to cleanse a 5,000-square-km area," the president said before emarking for official trips to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Turkish-backed Syrian rebels are pressing a major offensive on al-Bab, 30 km (20 miles) south of the Turkish border. The advance risks putting them in direct conflict with Syrian government forces who are closing in on the city from the south.
"The ultimate goal is to cleanse a 5,000-square-km area," Erdogan told a news conference before his departure on an official visit to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, said rebels backed by heavy Turkish air strikes fought Islamic State 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 said.
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, it said.
Turkey believes recent IS attacks in Turkey, including a New Year's Day shooting in an Istanbul nightclub that killed 39 people, have been steered from al-Bab and Raqqa, and it regards a clear-out of the towns as a national security priority.
Erdogan's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said last week that Turkey had presented a detailed plan to oust Islamic State from Raqqa and that strategy discussions with US President Donald Trump's administration were under way.
Turkey has repeatedly said it wants to be part of the U.S.-led operation to retake Raqqa, but does not want the YPG, which has been backed by Washington, to be involved.