Challenges Facing the Turkish-led Offensive on al-Bab

The Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced in a speech on October 22, 2016 that the Turkish-led Euphrates Shield operation would press on to the Islamic State (ISIS)-held town of al-Bab, the group’s last stronghold in Aleppo Governorate. Erdoğan’s instructions were implemented two days later when the Turkish-led coalition suspended its offensive on the town of Tal Rifaat in northern Aleppo Governorate—held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—and announced the beginning of its operation to capture al-Bab. It was clear in Erdoğan’s speech that, compared to previous targets in Syria, al-Bab’s battle is more complicated. “They tell us not to go to al-Bab, but we are obliged to go down there,” he said. The city has strategic importance for many warring parties, which increases the risks that come with capturing it.

Al-Bab links the north of Aleppo Governorate to the provinces of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, making it strategically important for Turkey, the SDF, and ISIS. To connect the Kurdish-controlled western canton of Afrin to the Rojava region—the name Syrian Kurds have given to areas under their autonomous administration along the Turkish border—the SDF needs to capture al-Bab. Turkey needs to capture al-Bab to prevent Syrian Kurds from uniting the territories under their control and establishing an autonomous administration along its border. Additionally, al-Bab is ISIS’ last stronghold in Aleppo; losing it will push ISIS entirely out of the province, leaving it only the provinces of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in Syria.

The Turkish-backed offensive—a coalition of Syrian rebel groups supported by Turkish troops—was launched on August 24 of this year to take the border town of Jarablus and hamper both SDF and ISIS aims in northern Syria. Turkey is worried that advances by Syrian Kurdish fighters will embolden Kurdish militants in its own southeast, where it has been fighting an insurgency for three decades led by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The capturing of around 20 kilometers along the Turkish border in northern Syria was achieved in a record time with minimal casualties and without much resistance from ISIS.

Secondary clashes
Competition over al-Bab could lead to military confrontations between the Turkish-led operation and the Kurdish-led forces. The SDF’s clear intentions to connect the city of Afrin to the rest of the Kurdish-controlled territories in northwestern Syrian played a crucial role in pushing Turkey to launch the Euphrates Shield operation—Turkey’s first ground military operation in Syria. The race to capture al-Bab led to recent clashes between the Turkish-backed groups and the SDF close to the city of Tal Rifaat in the north of Aleppo Governorate. The offensive resulted in a number of casualties—though the exact number is not clear—as Turkish warplanes and artillery fired on Kurdish targets. These clashes were later suspended on October 24 in order to continue the race to capture al-Bab, although clashes erupted again on October 25 between these groups.

There is also a common assumption among some experts that Russia, despite its approval of the Turkish-led operation, will not permit the Turkish-backed groups to capture al-Bab because it fears that Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies will then be able to threaten the regime’s Aleppo operation. Lending credence to this claim is that the Syrian regime reportedly bombed Turkish-backed groups on October 25 when Turkish forces clashed with the SDF.

However, other experts have claimed that Russia would allow Turkey to capture al-Bab in exchange for ejecting Jabhat Fatah al-Sham from Aleppo. “YPG sources speculate that Moscow gave the green light for Turkish air strikes to prevent their forces from moving on to al-Bab. In exchange, Erdogan assured Russian President Vladimir Putin in an Oct. 19 telephone conversation that he would help eject Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the jihadist group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, from Aleppo. Whether he will, or even can, remains unclear,” wrote Amberin Zaman, a columnist with al-Monitor, on October 20.

The Syrian regime attack on the Turkish-backed forces happened after this alleged deal, which may indicate that the regime is either not complying or that the deal is not going well. The intense competition to capture the city indicates that similar clashes will likely erupt again between the competing operations and that reaching a compromise will be difficult at best.

Internal challenges
The Turkish-backed rebel groups do not have the military experience or the manpower to swiftly defeat ISIS in al-Bab. The opposition’s newly launched operation to break the regime’s siege on Aleppo make fighting ISIS secondary for many rebel groups. Additionally, the groups that are participating in the operation are mostly small and not well established. Even the ones that are well established are not heavily invested in this coalition. Moreover, the war of competing fatwas (religious rulings) by different groups made participation in this operation problematic and have pushed at least three groups to suspend their participation.

“The rebels of Euphrates Shield are ill prepared for the grueling urban combat that taking al-Bab will entail. Even for a competent infantry force, this would be a difficult operation, perhaps akin to the First and Second Battles of Fallujah. A poorly trained rebel infantry force, even if backed by Turkish forces, will have an even harder time. Tensions between Islamist groups and U.S.-backed rebel groups, as well as a lack of rebel manpower, will further compound the challenges,” wrote Rao Komar, a Junior Intelligence Analyst at the SecDev Group, in War on the Rocks.

ISIS is well prepared
Multiple reports confirm that ISIS has dug in its heels at al-Bab, meaning that taking the city will not be like the rest of the Turkish-led operation. ISIS’ previous confrontations with the Turkish-led operation largely ended with the former withdrawing without much fighting and leaving booby-traps behind. The reported trenches around al-Bab along with landmines, improvised explosive devices, and anti-tank missiles, indicate the group’s decision to go for serious resistance. Sources on the ground report that ISIS has prepared al-Bab for a long siege, which is what intelligence experts have also confirmed using satellite images. As Komar has written, “analysis of satellite imagery shows that ISIL constructed a large defense network in and around the city this summer. A 20-kilometer defensive wall now envelops the entire city, [and] its countryside.” The size of the city as well as its multi-story buildings—unlike the small towns and villages where previous battles took place—will reduce the impact of the air force and artillery and may turn the offensive into street fighting.

The challenges facing the Turkish-led offensive on al-Bab will be the first serious test to the coalition’s capacity. The way this alliance deals with those challenges will likely play a significant role in determining the future of this operation. It will also determine to what extent the US can rely on the coalition in the future fight to capture Raqqa.

Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist, researcher, and Chatham House Associate Fellow who focuses on security policy, conflict studies, and Kurdish and Islamist movements. He tweets @HaidHaid22

Image: Photo: Smoke rises from al-Bab city, northern Aleppo province, Syria October 26, 2016. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi