Turkey said Wednesday that Ankara-backed Syrian rebels would lead any operation to capture a key town held by Islamic State (IS) jihadists well inside the territory of its conflict-torn neighbour.
Turkish Defence Minister Fikri Isik denied newspaper reports that Ankara planned to send in additional infantry Turkish troops to take the IS bastion of Al-Bab, saying that Turkey had “no plans today” to do so.
In an incursion that began on August 24, Turkish special forces, tanks and artillery, backed by coalition air strikes, have supported opposition fighters against IS jihadists.
The pro-Ankara rebels captured the town of Jarabulus from IS on the first day of the offensive and have since also taken several villages around Jarabulus and neighbouring Al-Rai.
But taking Al-Bab, 30 kilometres (18 miles) from Al-Rai on the Turkish border, would be a far tougher proposition.
“Our plan right now would be for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to conduct this (operation) instead of Turkey’s own infantry,” Isik told reporters in the northwestern city of Eskisehir.
“We give all kinds of support to (Syrian rebels)… and we will continue to do this.”
According to press reports, there are already hundreds of Turkish troops and dozens of Turkish tanks inside Syria.
Turkey refers to the pro-Ankara rebels as the FSA, although many analysts see them as a varied collection of various Syrian opposition brigades rather than a single organised force.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said before heading to the UN General Assembly in New York this week that Turkey could push further south to create a 5,000-square-kilometre (1,900 square-mile) safe zone in Syria.
A report in the Hurriyet daily had said earlier that additional Turkish infantry troops would be needed to capture Al-Bab from the jihadists.
A Turkish official told Hurriyet that it was essential that Ankara had “a comprehensive ground force” to push further into Al-Bab city.
“Of course, operation plans include ground force elements,” the official said.
Military sources also told the HaberTurk newspaper that the Al-Bab operation was slower and riskier compared with the lightning advance in Jarabulus and Al-Rai because there was a higher risk of military losses and mines had been laid by IS.
Ten Turkish soldiers have been killed since the operation began, with the latest deaths coming in an explosion on the border on Tuesday.