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ICSR Insight: Who Will Hold The Keys To Al-Bab?

05/12/2016

By John Holland-McCowan, Research Fellow, ICSR
and Adam Alayli, Research Assistant, ICSR

A new offensive by Turkey and its affiliated Syrian opposition forces against the ISIS controlled city of al-Bab has set the major actors in the Syrian conflict on a collision course.

On November 24, the Turkish military claimed that three of its advancing soldiers were killed by Syrian government airstrikes. This was the first time the Syrian government has killed Turkish forces, members of NATO and part of the US led anti-ISIS coalition. Meanwhile, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have advanced towards the city from the east and west, partially in coordination with the Syrian regime, vowing to take al-Bab for themselves.

The race for al-Bab has begun. Further study of each of the principle actors seeking to influence the battle for this key city reveals its critical importance in shaping the conflict in Northern Syria.

The Turkish led Offensive

The capture of al-Bab by Turkish affiliated forces would be a crowning achievement of “Operation Euphrates Shield”. As mentioned in our recent Insight, “Why the Kurdish-led SDF Will Struggle to Retake Raqqa”, the primary goal of the Turkish backed offensive is to prevent the SDF from consolidating power across Syria’s northern border with Turkey.

If Turkey and its affiliated Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces capture al-Bab, they would drive a decisive wedge between SDF forces in the northwest and northeast of Syria. Denying the SDF, a group with ties to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) terrorist organization, a stronghold in Northern Syria is of the utmost importance to Ankara.

Yet remarkably, despite the Turkish led Arab coalition’s territorial advances, their NATO allies’ commitment to them doesn’t appear guaranteed. The US led anti-ISIS coalition has given substantial support to the SDF despite Turkey’s vehement objections. Washington’s statement that it will not provide air cover for the Turkish led offensive for al-Bab is notable.

While Turkey’s affiliated forces are now positioned near the northern outskirts of the city, it is uncertain whether they will be able to take the city from ISIS control in the near future.

Reports indicate that ISIS’s defense of al-Bab could be robust. Satellite imagery reveals that ISIS has constructed extensive defense networks surrounding the city equipped with landmines, IEDs, and anti-tank missiles. The city, with a prewar population of 100,000, seems prepared for a long siege. Furthermore Turkey’s Arab coalition’s prior territorial advances have been principally over sparsely populated areas where ISIS offered token resistance. It is a legitimate question whether its forces are prepared for urban warfare and a determined defense. The prospect of a protracted battle for al-Bab would give the SDF and the Assad regime a valuable opportunity to contest the Turkish led offensive.

The Syrian Regime

ISIS’s control of al-Bab has had its advantages for Bashar al-Assad despite his professed determination to fight all forms of extremism in Syria while recapturing every inch of the shattered country.

ISIS’s presence has served to mask and justify the regime’s alleged fight against extremism for Assad’s true agenda: to destroy the more moderate opposition groups in western Syria until there are no palatable alternatives to his rule. Yet ISIS’s recent territorial setbacks at the hands of Turkish and Kurdish affiliated forces has helped bring his actual intentions into focus. While the Syrian Armed Forces current primary aim appears to be the recapture of eastern Aleppo, the Turkish advance on al-Bab is deeply concerning.

The recent Syrian airstrikes against Turkish soldiers could indicate that the Syrian government views the prospect of al-Bab falling to ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’ as a severe threat to its rule. The possibility of having a NATO ally, and partner of the US-led coalition, adjacent to its territory and edging closer to Aleppo is alarming. By conducting joint operations with the SDF to advance towards al-Bab from the east, the regime hopes to create a new buffer between the Turkish affiliated forces. Nevertheless if the Syrian armed forces continue to attack America’s military ally they risk turning the coalition’s guns against them.

How Russia, Assad’s primary military backer, manages its allegiance to their Syrian proxy as well as its improving relations with Turkey will prove critical. Even if Turkey assumes a less threatening stance towards the embattled regime, the possibility of having a long term Turkish presence in the city may ultimately cross a red line for Assad.

The Syrian Democratic Forces

The SDF also has set their sights on al-Bab. Capturing the city would create a territorially linked enclave in Northern Syria, a striking testament to the resolve and fighting capability of their Kurdish dominated forces. Yet taking al-Bab would be unacceptable for the Turkish government bent on curbing Kurdish gains in Northern Syria. The current conflict between Turkey and the SDF could become a conflagration.

The SDF likely calculate that capturing al-Bab would increase their bargaining power at the negotiating table. This is crucially important for the SDF as they are justifiably concerned that their lack of representation in previous Syrian peace talks, primarily due to Ankara’s hostility, could endanger their hard fought gains.

The SDF seems to have concluded that the best way to gain political leverage is to establish facts on the ground in their favor. Their most recent operation to take Raqqa, ‘Wrath of the Euphrates’, appears to have been principally launched in order to mobilize US support behind them while Turkey was assaulting their positions in Western Syria. Proving their utility to the US by advancing on Raqqa and al-Bab will hopefully convince Washington to not abandon their cause and prevent them from supporting Ankara’s fight against them.

It should be acknowledged, however, that while the SDF are often regarded as stalwart allies of the US-led coalition, they also have a history of cooperating with the Syrian and Russian governments. In October 2015, the Kurdish contingent of the SDF exploited the Sunni rebels defeat by the Russian and regime’s offensive in Aleppo province to advance east from their Kurdish controlled Afrin ‘canton’ district. The SDF also utilized Russian air support in February 2016 when they attacked other US-supported rebels who were former beneficiaries of the failed one billion dollar CIA training program.

While Damascus and Moscow may prefer for ISIS to retain control of the city in the short term, they would be more receptive to an SDF capture of al-Bab rather than a liberation at the hands of the Turkish affiliated coalition. This further clarifies why the SDF’s most recent push towards the city from the west has been conducted in concert with the Syrian regime’s forces. How these relationships will continue to shape their new offensive on al-Bab remains to be seen.

In summary, the battle for al-Bab sharply underlines the competing security priorities of the main actors in Western Syria. The race for al-Bab will severely test their alliances, partnerships, and enmities in the melee. Whoever holds the keys to al-Bab will likely have a decisive impact on the course of the Syrian Civil War.

John Holland-McCowan is a Research Fellow at ICSR. Follow him at @jhollandmccowan. Adam Alayli is a Research Assistant at ICSR.