BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian government forces and their allies drove Islamic State militants out of several villages northeast of Aleppo between Tuesday and Wednesday, a monitoring group said, bringing them closer to territory held by Turkish-backed rebels.
Advances in the last week have brought the Syrian army to within 8 km (5 miles) of the Islamic State-held town of al-Bab, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Al-Bab, which the Turkish-backed insurgents are separately fighting to seize from the jihadist group, lies some 30 km northeast of Aleppo and 30 km south of the Turkish border.
Turkey said on Tuesday it would not hand over al-Bab to Syrian forces after driving out Islamic State. The Turkish-backed rebels are closer to doing so than the Syrian army, having already reached the town’s outskirts.
Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman described renewed assaults by the Syrian army which began last week as a race to recapture the city before the Turkish side got there.
The fight to seize al-Bab is one of several overlapping conflicts being fought in Syria.
The main struggle is between President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Iran, Russia and Shi’ite militias including Lebanese Hezbollah, against rebels that include groups backed by Turkey, Gulf monarchies and the United States.
But both those sides, and a U.S.-backed, Kurdish dominated alliance, are fighting separate campaigns against Islamic State, which controls vast areas of eastern Syria and has made enemies of all sides involved in the war.
Turkey, which is fighting its own Kurdish insurgency, wants to drive both Islamic State and Kurdish fighters from areas along its border.
In a sign of increasingly close Russian-Turkish cooperation even as they continue to back opposing sides, Moscow said last week its warplanes had joined forces with Turkish jets for the first time to target Islamic State militants in al-Bab.
One Turkish soldier was killed and five were wounded in a clash with Islamic State militants near the town on Wednesday, Turkey’s military said.
The wounded were taken to hospital after the clash at around 5 pm (1400 GMT) in the Kabr al Mukri area near al-Bab, the army statement said.
Dogan news agency reported that the Islamic State fighters had staged a rocket attack on the Turkish unit, prompting retaliatory ground and air fire from the Turkish forces.
(Reporting by John Davison in Beirut and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Editing by Dominic Evans)