Turkey’s Al-Bab operation is at stake

Turkey’s Al-Bab operation is at stake

Next week will mark the third month of Turkey’s Euphrates Shield Operation, which has been able to successfully secure an area including a 100-kilometer-strip of the Turkish-Syrian border and clear an area of around 1,700 kilometers square inside Syria from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). 
The operation gas been carried out mainly by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces, but has been accompanied and advised by the Special Forces of the Turkish Armed Forces, as well as supported by an aerial campaign of the Turkish Air Forces and sometimes by international anti-ISIL coalition warplanes. 

The operation has two main objectives: First, to clear of and secure the Turkish border and sweep ISIL away. Second, to nix the plans of Syrian Kurdish groups aiming to link the Afrin canton with Kobane. The first objective is believed to be accomplished. For the second objective, Turkey believes that it has to secure control of Al-Bab. 

Al-Bab, meaning “the door” in Arabic, is seen as an important gateway to Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city where the regime is heavily fighting against rebels in order to fully control this strategic town. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has openly announced that Turkey and the FSA are beginning a new operation in Al-Bab next week, after Turkish warplanes were able to restart flights over Syrian airspace after two weeks of suspension. Turkey hit both ISIL and Democratic Union Party (PYD) targets in these aerial strikes, delivering a strong message that it will not allow Syrian Kurds’ advancement toward the city. 

Three major things have happened this week: Turkey had to stop its sorties over Syria, the PYD and the regime both announced that they aimed to capture Al-Bab, and the anti-ISIL coalition said it would not support the Turkish offensive further south.

U.S. Colonel John Dorrian, a spokesman for the anti-ISIL coalition, said the Turkish operation on Al-Bab is not being supported by coalition air strikes because it was “independently” launched by Turkey. “That’s a national decision that they have made,” he said on Nov. 17.

The key word in the spokesman’s statement is “independent,” which could be interpreted as meaning  that Ankara and Washington can no longer coordinate their respective moves in Syria and have totally different objectives. This is not only the case with the U.S. but also with Russia, as Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık said on Nov 18. “Not only Turkey, but both the U.S. and Russia also have some thoughts on Al-Bab. We are working to handle it on the table and through communication,” Işık said.   

He added that Turkish intelligence and the Turkish military have been in close coordination with their American and Russian counterparts on development in the fields.

 “There are different interest groups [in the field]. Within this framework, Turkey is taking steps to protect its own and regional interests and to increase its security to a maximum level,” Işık said. 

It is interesting that all actors in the Syrian theater have begun adopting rather more independent actions since Donald Trump’s election as the next U.S. president. 

Turkey seems to be breaking away from the anti-ISIL coalition; Russia and the Syrian regime have intensified their offensive against the FSA and other rebel groups, especially in and around Aleppo; international diplomatic efforts seem to have slowed down; the PYD is aiming to gain new ground in the field; and there seems no promising new initiative for ending the bloodshed. 

Despite all this, one common point shared by all actors - except Turkey - is to stop the Turkish military and the FSA from advancing toward the south and from approaching Al-Bab. It is sad and dangerous that Turkey’s sole ally in the unsafe Syrian theater is the FSA, the future of which remains a big question mark.