Two Turkish soldiers were killed and five were wounded in a missile attack Tuesday by ISIS in northern Syria - the first Turkish casualties caused by the militants in Turkey’s two-week-old incursion into Syria.
The Turkish fatalities came after Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebels on Sunday expelled ISIS from the last strip of territory the militant group controlled along the Syrian-Turkish border, effectively sealing the extremists’ self-styled caliphate off from the outside world.
Turkey launched the incursion into Syria - the so-called Euphrates Shield operation - to back Syrian rebels in their fight to push ISIS out of the town of Jarablus and to limit the Syrian Kurdish militia forces’ advance west of the Euphrates River.
In a statement, Turkey’s military said the militants fired rockets at Turkish tanks during clashes near the border area from where ISIS was pushed out of on Sunday. It said the wounded were evacuated by helicopters. Two Turkey-backed Syrian rebels were also killed and two wounded rebels were also evacuated.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were intense clashes on Tuesday between the Turkish-backed rebels and ISIS militants east of the town of al-Rai and surrounding villages.
The territorial losses at the border were the biggest blow to the militant group, which also has suffered a series of recent battlefield setbacks elsewhere in Syria and in neighboring Iraq.
The two killed by ISIS were not Turkey’s first casualties following the launch of the incursion, though they were the first fatalities at the hands of the militant group since the operation began.
On the fifth day of the operation, a Turkish soldier was killed in clashes with Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.
In July 2015, a Turkish soldier was killed after ISIS militants shot across the border into Turkey. Ankara conducted airstrikes against ISIS inside Syria after that.
Turkey hopes for ceasefire
Turkey on Tuesday said it hoped a ceasefire in Syria could be implemented in time for a major Islamic holiday that begins next week, despite the failure of world powers to announce a deal at the G20 summit in China.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, revealed that the Turkish leader had met separately a second time with Russian and US counterparts Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama before leaving the G20 meeting in Hangzhou.
He said Erdogan had told the two leaders that it was essential “as soon as possible to agree a ceasefire or a truce” for Syria’s northern Aleppo province.
“We are waiting for a final agreement. We received an outline but we are expecting an agreement on paper that can be implemented,” Kalin told NTV television.
Asked when such a truce could be implemented, Kalin said Erdogan had told Putin that the people of Aleppo should benefit from a suspension of fighting in time for the Feast of the Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha) Islamic holiday which in Turkey begins on Sep. 12.
Kalin said that the ceasefire could begin with a 48-hour-truce that would then be lengthened and would see both the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and opposition fighters halt fire.
An agreement between Russia and the United States was believed to have been close at the G20 but Washington then admitted no deal could be announced for the moment.
Turkey and Russia have been on opposite sides of Syria’s five-and-a-half-year civil war, with Moscow backing Assad and Ankara supporting the opposition against him.
However, there have been signs of a rapprochement on Syria between the two countries after a deal to normalize crisis-hit relations, with Ankara acknowledging Assad could temporarily stay on in a transition.
Turkey has also staged a major incursion inside Syria to back the opposition fighters which it says is aimed at rooting out both ISIS militants and Kurdish militia on its border.
Kalin said that Putin told Erdogan in China that the operation, which has now lasted two weeks, had his “full support.”
Meanwhile, Kalin added that there was still no agreement between Turkey and the US over the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Washington sees as an ally in the fight against ISIS but Ankara regards as a terror group.
‘Safe zone’ idea not rejected
Kalin also said that world powers have not ruled out Turkey’s idea for a “safe zone” in Syria but they have not shown a clear will to implement the plan either.
Erdogan had said on Monday that he repeated Turkey’s proposal at a meeting of G20 leaders for a “safe zone” from fighting in Syria to help curb the flow of migrants.
Turkey, meanwhile, has been supporting Syrian rebels near its southern borders to beat ISIS militant group. In the same time, Turkey has also intensified its offensive against Kurdish militias in Syria.
Confrontation with Kurds soon?
On Tuesday, a spokesman for Erdogan said Turkey insists that all elements of Kurdish militia YPG must be cleared from Syria’s Manbij.
Manbij city, which was a former ISIS stronghold, is located near the battleground city of Aleppo in northern Syria. Ankara claimed that Kurdish militia forces had attempted to seize more territories following the liberation of Manbij from ISIS.
This has propelled Turkey to warn the Kurds to leave the area and intensify its backing to Syrian rebels.
On Tuesday, a Syrian rebel commander said Kurdish militia forces have not withdrawn from Manbij, warning that he expects confrontation soon.
In a related story, NATO head Jens Stoltenberg will travel to key ally Turkey this week to meet Erdogan, one of the highest western officials to visit since a failed military coup in July, a statement said Tuesday.
The alliance gave no further details of Stoltenberg’s meeting Thursday and Friday with Erdogan, who has berated the West for what he sees as its lukewarm backing and criticism of his massive crackdown on coup suspects.
(With AP, AFP, Reuters)