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Marginal progress for Turkish-backed forces in north Syria
BEIRUT — Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition forces have managed to capture just one-tenth of a north Syrian town from Islamic State militants, a conflict monitoring group said Saturday, despite reaching its outskirts seven weeks ago.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group told the AP that nine-tenths of al-Bab remains under IS control. The Observatory receives its information from a network of contacts inside the war-torn country.
Battlefield reports from Syrian opposition forces corroborated the Observatory's review.
The Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sham militia announced Saturday on Twitter that opposition forces had taken the city's silos and sports complex in its southwestern districts. The coalition's operations room released a video on social media showing its fighters at the gates of the Hikma hospital. Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group also reported the hospital's capture.
But these amount to just marginal advances in the town, where some 100,000 residents lived before the start of the Syrian civil war, six years ago. Al-Bab lies about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the Turkish border.
Turkey is leading Syrian opposition forces in a broad operation called "Euphrates Shield" against the Islamic State group and US-backed Kurdish forces northern Syria.
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Ankara wants to clear groups it says are terrorists away from its border, while Syrian opposition forces are looking to secure territory before rival government forces arrive from the south.
Turkey is the opposition's chief backer in Syria's multisided civil war. It has deployed troops, tanks and artillery inside Syria as part of operation "Euphrates Shield."
Turkey's Anadolu news agency began reporting Turkish troop fatalities in al-Bab on Dec. 21. That week, 16 Turkish soldiers were killed in clashes or ambushes by the Islamic State in the town.
Dozens of civilians have been killed in Turkish air raids on the town, as well.
The IS group's Aamaq news agency reported that Turkish, American, and Russian warplanes flew more than 80 sorties over the town on Friday and struck with 150 artillery rounds.
The three powers are coordinating their aerial campaigns against the Islamic State group and other al-Qaida-linked factions in northern Syria.
Pro-government forces, meanwhile, backed by Russian airpower, are engaged with IS militants in the village of Tadif, about 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) south of al-Bab.
The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement Saturday that "in the course of the battle in the area of Tadif, government forces destroyed 650 terrorists, two tanks" and various vehicles fitted with arms and explosives. The figures could not be independently confirmed.
Meanwhile, Iran's Supreme National Security Council authorized Russia to fly its fighters over Iranian airspace to support operations in Syria, the state's semi-official Tasnim news agency reported.
Earlier on August, Iran confirmed that Russia bombers launched airstrikes from near the Iranian city of Hamedan, 280 kilometers (175 miles) southwest of the Iranian capital, Tehran to hit targets in in eastern Syria.
Iran is a stanch supporter of the Syrian government.