Turkish troops and Syrian rebels have claimed almost complete control of the Syrian town of al-Bab, including the town center, pushing back Islamic State (IS) fighters who have held the area since late 2013 and opening up a path to Raqqa, IS’ de facto capital in Syria (Hürriyet, February 23).
That battle has been hard fought, but the defeat of IS is only part of the Turkish objective, the other being to halt the territorial gains of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (PYD), the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Rather than immediately pursue IS to Raqqa, Turkish success in al-Bab, according to Turkish officials, is likely to be followed by an offensive on Manbij to ensure the PYD withdrawal there is completed. Afrin and Raqqa may then follow.
However, whether the diplomatic, political and military dynamics will allow these next steps requires further analysis. Meanwhile, the anti-IS coalition’s unwillingness to engage in the al-Bab offensive, despite Turkish calls for air support, has put strains on an important counter-terrorism alliance.
Operation Euphrates Shield
From mid-2016, Turkey re-adjusted its foreign policy, reconciling to a degree with Israel and Russia. Mending fences with Moscow in particular enabled Turkey to carry out airstrikes in Syria and increase its level of direct involvement in the country, including launching Operation Euphrates Shield in August of that year.
The declared goals of the operation were to fight IS in Syria and tackle the PYD, which, after capturing Manbij, was getting closer to merging its territory to form a belt along the Turkish border from Afrin to Kobane. Turkey was concerned this would create a PYD-controlled zone along its border from which the PKK could operate.
Turkey declared it would advance through the Azaz-Jarablus line and establish a “safe zone,” a move it had been discussing with the anti-IS coalition for some time to no avail. This allowed it to prevent a merger of PYD-controlled cantons, as well as push back IS and prevent the group’s mortar and rocket attacks on Turkish cities along the Syrian border. Within the context of the operation, Turkey not only supported the Free Syrian Army (FSA), it also engaged its own air and ground forces in Syria.
Since the operation began, Turkey and Turkish-backed FSA forces have cleared the Turkish-Syrian border of IS. Some 1,900 square kilometers (km) were cleared and more than 1,700 IS fighters were killed (Anadolu Ajansı, December 22, 2016; TCBB, December 26, 2016).
The al-Bab offensive was the next stage of the operation.
Al-Bab, just 30 km from the Turkish border, was a stronghold for IS in Syria, the most significant after Raqqa. It stands in a strategic location on the M4 highway toward Iraq, and serves as a key route to Aleppo, Raqqa and Deir-al-Zour. Its capture is also a critical step toward preventing the merger of the PYD-controlled cantons in Syria, the other main aim of Operation Euphrates Shield. The increased number and frequency of attacks in Turkey by the Kurdish Freedom Falcons (TAK), which has links to the PKK, should be seen in this context.
To capture al-Bab, Turkish armed forces closed in on it from the north, east and west in a joint effort with FSA fighters. About 64 Turkish soldiers have been killed and 386 injured since Operation Euphrates Shield began. Some 469 FSA fighters have also been killed and another 1,700 injured, while on the IS’ side more than 1,700 militants have been killed.
More than half of these deaths and injuries, on all sides, were from the offensive on al-Bab (al-Jazeera Turk, December 24, 2016; BİK, December 21, 2016). One of the most recent Turkish airstrikes killed some of the leading IS figures in the town, including 18 at the level of “emir” (HaberTürk, December 25, 2016).
Around the end of December, the Turkish military-FSA alliance succeeded in capturing the Aqil Mountain and the al-Bab hospital — one of IS’ main headquarters and ammunition stores in the town — for several days. For weeks, the mountain and the hospital became one of the frontlines of the offensive, captured and re-captured by both sides but eventually came under the TAF and TAF-backed FSA control.
Capturing the Aqil Mountain, which overlooks the town, was key for Turkish forces as it allowed their howitzer and artillery fire to be more effective. Turkey’s recent deployment of a new batch of 155mm howitzers and improved armored personnel carriers seems far from coincidental. For several weeks, none of the fighting parties were able to claim the area confidently. Likewise, a key challenge was the IS’ presence in Qabasin and Bzaa, and their use of these two towns as frontlines in order to avoid being completely surrounded by Turkish-FSA forces. The capture of Suflaniyah village in the east of al-Bab was regarded as an important step, but was followed by a withdrawal in the early days of the offensive. It was only recaptured in the second phase of the battle with increased direct Turkish military support and the deployment of additional opposition fighters (South Front, January 13).
Urban warfare presents particular challenges. IS, which has held al-Bab for more than three years and Mosul in Iraq since mid-2014, has experience in defending the urban centers it has captured. The group plants improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in homes, ditches and along incoming routes, deploys vehicle-borne IEDs (VBIEDs) and uses tunnels to move fighters and carry out surprise VBIED and suicide attacks. The group’s use of the urban population as human shields made the operation even more complicated. Images have also shown the use of IEDs and T4 explosives disguised as rocks, suggesting that even after capturing the town, making it safe will take some time.
Turkey has considerable experience in urban warfare from its campaign against the PKK in Cizre, Sur and Nusaybin, experience that will likely equip Turkish forces for the challenges in capturing and holding al-Bab. However, tactics are constantly evolving. Just as the PKK have used some of the urban warfare strategies employed by the PYD, it is only realistic to assume IS closely monitors the use of new tactics and will integrate them into its strategy where necessary.
The deployment of around 500 Turkish commandos, as well as of 1,400 opposition fighters from Idlib, is an indicator of just how difficult Turkey judged the capture of al-Bab to be and demonstrates a growing realization on Turkey’s part that the next stage of Operation Euphrates Shield will require even greater military power (Hürriyet, December 26, 2016). Moreover, this deployment shows that even though the fighters on the ground from the opposition forces can help buy Turkey time to fortify required positions and deploy necessary additional units, complete reliance on them for further advances seems impossible for now. With the arrival of fresh manpower, permanent control over the Aqil Mountain and the surrounding of the town centers of Qabasin and Bzaa (the latter captured from IS on February 23), as well as holding Suflaniyah has been achieved. Turkey has increased the area its forces captured from IS from 20-25 percent in mid-January to more than 40 percent in mid-February (Liveumap, January, 17; February 17). According to reports from the field on February 23, al-Bab is now almost completely controlled by Turkish forces and their rebel allies (Milliyet, February 23).
Cracks in the Coalition
Although IS withdrew from Jarablus, al-Rai and Dabiq with relatively little resistance, the group has not had that option in al-Bab. Following the loss of Aleppo, IS has had nowhere to retreat and the battle for al-Bab was particularly hard-fought as a result.
A major deterrent to Turkey’s advance against IS was that the group had acquired man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADs) and anti-tank missiles (ATGMs), captured from opposition forces and the PYD.
The al-Bab offensive was further complicated for Turkey by decisions made by its allies in the anti-IS coalition. First, the coalition announced that it would delay an attack on Raqqa until April, a move that enabled IS to move its fighters to al-Bab to bolster its defenses (T24, December 26, 2016). Second, the coalition’s decision not to support the Turkish offensive with air support made the capture of al-Bab more difficult.
In December, Turkey’s presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalın stated: “As for our operation in al-Bab, the international coalition should assume its responsibilities, especially when air support is concerned” (Hürriyet, December 26, 2016). The call was in part an attempt to draw the coalition into the fight against IS, the objective around which it was formed in the first place. The coalition claimed that it showed its “muscle” with sorties while Turkish troops were fighting, but it provided little real support (BBC Türkçe, January 3). The recent statement by coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian that reconnaissance flights were made as well as bombings in support of the offensive in places “close to al-Bab” has not improved the situation.
As a result, Turkey has moved closer to Russia, further straining its relationship with the coalition. Russian air strikes south of al-Bab — even though these were neither coordinated with the Turkish offensive nor made in direct support of the Turkish and FSA forces — contributed to the image that Russia is a more supportive ally to Turkey than the United States within the context of this particular front (Anadolu Ajansı, January 18; Middle East Eye, December 29, 2016).
Next Steps and Changing Dynamics
For IS, falling back to Raqqa offers a short-term solution following its defeat in al-Bab, but an attack on IS’ de facto capital carried out simultaneously by the PYD on the one hand and Turkey-FSA forces on the other — even if uncoordinated — would be a two-front war that IS has neither the capability nor the resources to win. However, whether the PYD or Turkey-FSA forces will carry out that offensive is unclear.
The dynamics on the ground in Syria change almost on a daily basis. Talks promoted by Turkey, Iran and Russia, which have taken place in Moscow and the Kazakhstani capital of Astana, may be one of the most significant recent developments. Iran and Russia could put pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Assad and act as guarantors of the outcomes of any negotiations. All the parties will need to put pressure on their proxies, but the trilateral negotiation framework was an important factor behind the evacuation of 37,500 people from Aleppo, and so went some (limited) way toward addressing the humanitarian tragedy in the city.
It is noteworthy that the Assad regime’s stance towards the PYD has grown harsher as the regime feels more secure (Daily Sabah, December 27, 2016). However, the killing of three Turkish soldiers by the Russian air force in a friendly fire incident, and a Kurdish conference held in Moscow this month attended by representatives of the PYD, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Gorran and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), suggest the Russia-Turkey relationship is not entirely without tensions (Hürriyet, February 10, Rudaw, February 16).
As far as Turkey’s advance is concerned, Turkey has so far succeeded in clearing its border of IS forces. Likewise, it has established a de facto safe zone protecting its border towns and cities from IS mortar and rocket attacks, and it claims to have complete control over al-Bab.
Following the offensive on al-Bab, Turkey’s next target was previously declared to be pushing YPG forces east of the Euphrates, which most likely means mounting an offensive on Manbij. Statements from the coalition about YPG withdrawal from Manbij are disbelieved by Turkey and not taken all that seriously by the YPG. Meanwhile, the United States’ stance against support for Turkey taking on the YPG in Manbij complicates U.S.-Turkey relations and is an area that the new U.S. administration will need to address.