Monday, October 3, 2016

Latest developments in northern Syria – the race for Al-Bab and the debacle of ”Euphrates Shield” [Map included]

By Aram Mirzaei

Since the onset of the Turkish invasion of northern Syria back in August of 2016, Turkish-backed Jihadists managed to capture a host of villages and towns from both the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and the US-backed “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF). Within weeks, a total of 900 square kilometres had been captured by the Turkish-backed Jihadist operations room, also called “Euphrates shield”.

Not long after these advances, the “Euphrates shield” Jihadists announced their intention to move on the ISIL stronghold of Al-Bab, located to the northeast of Aleppo city. Meanwhile, tensions were growing ever more hostile between the Turkish AKP government and the SDF amid SDF’s refusal to withdraw from the city of Manbij. This was followed by Washington siding with its Turkish NATO-allies as Vice President Joe Biden made it clear that they would cut all their support for SDF if they did not withdraw their forces to the east of the Euphrates river.

Senior Turkish officials said their armed forces will confront as “terrorists” British and foreign volunteers fighting with the SDF militia in Syria, and that any casualties will be the responsibility of their own governments.

In comments to Middle East Eye an adviser to the Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, said British, French, American and other foreign citizens fighting alongside the YPG would be treated as “terrorists… regardless of whether they are members of allied countries”.

The statement came after the Turkish government rejected a US-brokered ceasefire between Turkish forces and the Kurdish militias in northern Syria, a week after Turkey invaded the Syrian border town of Jarabulus to allegedly eject ISIL.

“Turkey does not differentiate on the basis of nationality when it comes to membership in terrorist organisations,” said Yunus Akbaba, Yildirim’s adviser.

“Turkey will not hesitate to confront terrorist organisations within the scope of its operation. These are terrorist groups and anyone fighting under their banner will be considered terrorists,” he said.

“It is the responsibility of the countries where they come from to prevent them from joining these groups. Turkish forces will confront them if they are fighting under the banner of terrorist groups, regardless of whether they are members of allied countries,” he added.  [1]

The next day, these foreigners fighting alongside the SDF defiantly responded by saying that they are planning to oppose advances by Turkish-backed Jihadist forces. In a series of statements on Twitter, the so called “Bob Crow Brigade” said that its members were leaving the Raqqa front, to travel to Manbij. They also added that “This ‘FSA’ is now 11km from Manbij which the SDF lost almost 500 lives liberating from ISIL for real. “

“They want to ‘take it back’ from us. ‘Take it back’ for whom? There are no ‘moderate rebels’ locally outside the YPG-led SDF. Certainly not ones backed by Turkey.

“When we came to defend the revolution we meant from all enemies, big or small. We are leaving the Raqqa front and heading to Manbij.”

A week after these events, SDF declared its intent to also move on the town of Al-Bab “Our troops will advance toward Al-Bab city. This will be our next military target. We want to completely liberate this city,” said Ahmed Sultan, deputy commander of the Army of Revolutionaries, an affiliate of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

“We will not allow the regime to advance, and we will also prevent the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army [FSA] factions from taking part in the liberation of Al-Bab and its countryside,”

This statement is a clear sign of hostility towards not only the “Euphrates Shield” operations room, but also against the Syrian Army who is the only force in the country that has a legitimate claim to these areas.

Adding to the messy chaos in northern Syria, the Jihadists declared that they will refuse US support. The so called Free Syrian Army’s “Ahrar Al-Sharqiyah” issued a statement on Friday declaring their refusal to work with the U.S. Armed Forces in northern Aleppo. According to their statement, the “Free Syrian Army” will not fight alongside the U.S. Armed Forces because of their support for “PKK separatists” in northern Syria. This came after video footage was released documenting the moment machinegun-mounted trucks carrying US soldiers emerging out of the town as the Turkish-backed rebels chanted Islamist slogans. One of the militants who put on a black balaclava addressed the mob via a loudspeaker, vowing to slaughter the Americans and whoever fights with them, describing them as ‘infidels and pigs’.[2]

Meanwhile, the SDF began their assault against ISIL on Sunday, targeting their positions in the northeastern Aleppo countryside and managed to capture the towns of Hasieh and Hasajek after a violent confrontation that lasted for the better part of a day. With the capture of these two towns, the SDF were left within 20 km of Al-Bab. [3]

For the Turkish-backed Jihadists participating in “Euphrates Shield,” the SDF taking Al-Bab would be disastrous for their offensive because the latter would finally be able to link the two “Rojava” pockets of Afrin and the larger chunk of land east of the Euphrates. The situation went from bad to worse for “Euphrates Shield” as ISIL launched a counter attack last week, just as the Turkish-backed Jihadists were about to enter “Phase 3” of their operation. ISIL quickly recaptured 20 villages and almost reached the border once more. [4] As a result of these setbacks, Phase 3 of the “Euphrates Shield” operation was put on hold due to the Jihadists failures on the battlefield.

It is also worthy of mention that ISIL has during this time managed to destroy several Turkish tanks and killed at least 10 Turkish soldiers. We can conclude that if all were going well with the Euphrates Shield operation, the Hurriyet Daily would not have run the Sept. 21 headline “Infantry to Syria.”

Hurriyet revealed at the end of its report why “Euphrates Shield” cannot continue without Turkish infantry, as a result of ISIL recapturing over 20 villages and the inability of the Turkish-backed Jihadists to commit to the operation, with over 600 of them leaving the front, citing a refusal to accept US support.

From the outset of the Turkish invasion, there were doubts about whether “Euphrates Shield” could be sustained without the involvement of Turkish ground troops. It was not difficult to foresee that the biggest weakness was the inadequacy of the Jihadists assembled under the FSA banner. Since late September and the ISIL counter-offensive, the battle for the northern Aleppo countryside is characterized by what analysts have come to call a “ping-pong” battle, with towns and villages switching hands multiple times over the weeks and with no side able to progress decisively.

There are several possible outcomes that could play out here. Either Turkey sends in its ground troops who have no experience of fighting in Syria, forcing them to fight not only PKK militants inside their own territory, but also the SDF and ISIL in Syria, or it uses more of its Jihadist proxies, relocating them from the Idlib province. Recently, the “Aleppo Shari’ah Council” issued a fatwa, calling the Turkish-backed “Euphrates Shield” offensive a “legal jihad” against the SDF and ISIL. The council made this “jihad” permissible on Saturday because Turkey is a Muslim country and a staunch ally of the Jihadists in Syria. This could mean that the Turkish-backed proxies could be boosted by more hardline Jihadists as they attempt to grab land in northern Syria. Making matters even more complicated, almost all groups participating in this offensive are allied with one of the largest Jihadist groups and an internationally recognized terrorist group: Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front).[5]

Al-Bab’s value goes far beyond Turkey’s goals. The town, controlled by ISIL since January 2014, is one of the most important ISIL strongholds, connecting the terrorist group’s control over areas near Aleppo City in the north to the provinces of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in the east. Al-Bab is a strategic link in the areas of confrontation among the warring parties in Syria, and it seems to swing the balance in the ongoing battles in northern Syria.

To the south of the imperative town of Al-Bab, the Syrian Army is also gearing up to capture this town in order to create a safe buffer zone for to the Sheikh Najjar Industrial Area in the far eastern parts of Aleppo City. On Monday, the Syrian Army’s elite Tiger Forces were redeployed from the Hama front in order participate in the upcoming offensive near the ISIL stronghold of Al-Bab. Thousands of soldiers poured in to eastern Aleppo countryside as they prepare for the largest Army offensive in this area since November 2015 when they freed the besieged soldiers at Kuweires Military Airport. [6]

The Syrian Army has about 10 km to go before they reach the gates of Al-Bab, as they are currently the closest force positioned near the town of Arran.

The crucial town of Al-Bab finds itself directly in the line of fire of all the forces in Syria competing to control it. Each party is seeking to strengthen their military position in the province and grab land as ISIL withdraws. Aleppo has proven to be the province where the fiercest battles are taking place. It can be concluded that the one that controls this province, has a good chance of getting the upper hand in the ever more chaotic Syrian conflict. The race for Al-Bab is on.


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