The Syrian army signaled on Thursday it would press on with operations against Islamic State northeast of Aleppo, in a veiled warning to Turkey which backs a separate military campaign in northern Syria.
Syrian government forces have rapidly driven Islamic State back in the last two weeks, advancing to within 6km (4 miles) of the city of al-Bab that the jihadists are fighting to hold.
The army’s gains risk sparking a confrontation with Turkey, which has sent tanks and warplanes across the border to support Syrian insurgents separately fighting IS, also in an attempt to seize al-Bab.
Ankara’s offensive, launched last year, aims to drive both IS and Syrian Kurdish fighters away from its borders, as Turkey sees both groups as a security threat.
Syria’s military general command said government forces and their allies had recaptured more than 30 towns and villages from Islamic State, and a 16 km (10 mile) stretch of the highway that links Aleppo to al-Bab to the northeast.
“This achievement widens the secured areas around Aleppo city and is the starting point for (further) operations against Daesh (Islamic State),” a military spokesman said in a statement broadcast on state TV.
The military “confirms its commitment to … protecting civilians and maintaining the unity of the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic,” the statement added, in a remark apparently directed at Turkey.
Turkey’s offensive has brought the rebel factions it backs – some of which have also fought against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Aleppo – to the outskirts of al-Bab, according to a group that monitors the war.
Ankara last week denied that Turkey would hand over al-Bab to Assad after driving out Islamic State.
A source in the military alliance fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad told Reuters on Wednesday the Syrian army aimed to reach al-Bab and was ready “to clash with the FSA fighting” alongside the Turkish army if necessary.
Turkey launched its “Euphrates Shield” campaign in Syria to secure its frontier from Islamic State and halt the advance of the powerful Kurdish YPG militia. Helping rebels to topple Assad is no longer seen as a priority for Ankara.
The Euphrates Shield campaign has carved out an effective buffer zone controlled by Turkey-backed rebel groups, obstructing the YPG’s plans of linking up Kurdish controlled areas in northeastern and northwestern Syria.
The YPG, backed by the United States, is separately also battling Islamic State, and Washington’s backing for the Kurdish fighters has created tension with Turkey.