Feb. 12 (UPI) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared Sunday that the capture of al-Bab from the Islamic State is is just a “matter of time” and clears the way for the takeover of Raqqa.
Erodgan told reporters Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies entered the center of al-Bab and intend to clear a “safe zone” of 1,930 square miles. Al-Bab is the last urban stronghold of Islamic State in Aleppo province and is 110 miles from Raqqa.
“After al-Bab is about to be over, the period following that will be Manbij and Raqqa,” Erdogan told journalists before his departure from Istanbul on official visits to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
“We shared our thoughts with the new U.S. administration and CIA and we will follow the developments in line with our stance,” he added.
Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump spoke Tuesday. The White House in a statement said the two leaders talked “about the close, long-standing relationship between the United States and Turkey and their shared commitment to combating terrorism in all its forms.”
The Islamic State captured Raqqa in northern Syria in March 2013 and made the city its de facto capital.
Erdogan said Islamic State fighters were deserting al-Bab. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Turkish troops controlled around 10 percent of the city and all of its western suburbs.
Erdogan said Turkish troops will not remain in Syria once “terrorist groups” — Syrian Kurdish militias and Islamic State — are defeated. They will leave the land to their “true owners.”
“But it is currently too early to talk about such issues,” Erdogan said.
Tunnels built 15 years ago used by the militants were destroyed by airstrikes in al-Bab, the Turkish military said.
One Turkish soldier died and three others were wounded Sunday, raising the number of Turkish troops killed in the offensive to 67.
Also Sunday, Turkey and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding to coordinate air operations.