Ankara’s forces are increasingly isolated in northern Syria
by TOM COOPER
Situated some 35 kilometers northeast of Aleppo city in northern Syria, Al Bab — population 65,000 — was one of the centers of the uprising against the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. Islamic State militants overran the town in November 2013.
Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield on Aug. 24, 2016 with the primary aim of reaching Al Bab in order to prevent the Kurdish People’s Protection Units — the YPG — from forming a land bridge connecting various territories the militia controls.
A secondary aim of the Turkish operation is to destroy ISIS forces in Al Bab. In this goal, the Turks succeeded. But in their main aim, they failed.
The Turkish military deployed elements of its Special Forces Command, special forces of the federal gendarmerie, parts of the 2nd Armored Brigade equipped with Leopard 2A4 tanks and the 5th Armored Brigade equipped with older M60 tanks.
These units are supported by two artillery regiments including the 106th equipped with Firtna self-propelled howitzers. Bayraktar tactical drones and F-16 fighter-bombers from the Turkish air force’s 8th Main Jet Base and E-7T radar planes from the 3rd MJB also support Operation Euphrates Shield.
A dozen Syrian insurgent groups provide the infantry element of the operation. These include units of the Free Syrian Army — such as the 13th Division, Sultan Murad Division, Hamza Division, Mutassim Brigade, Brigade of Mountain Falcons and a half-dozen others — and also independent Islamist groups such as Ahrar Ash Sham, Faylaq Ash Sham and even Harakat Noureddin Az Zenghi.
In all, insurgent groups provide some 3,000 fighters.
So far, the Turkish armed forces and allied Syrian insurgent forces have liberated an area the size of Arkansas. Despite several vicious ISIS counterattacks and some losses, the coalition liberated Al Bab in late February 2017.
Besides ISIS resistance, the operation repeatedly faced other obstacles. The coalition clashed with the YPG and forces loyal to the Syrian regime. Russian air force jets based in Syria bombed Turkish and allied troops.
Officially, the YPG is the military wing of the Democratic Union Party, an organization of Syrian Kurds. But Turkish commanders assert that the YPG is actually an offshoot of the extreme-left Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK. The PKK is considered a terrorist organization not only by Turkey, but all of NATO including the United States.
The PKK has been at war with Ankara for 30 years.
Indeed, large parts of the YPG reportedly are staffed by Kurds who are Turkish citizens and therefore members of the PKK. Although the administration of the former U.S. president Barack Obama acknowledged that the PYD is at least “aligned” with the PKK, it is also a centerpiece of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which the United States declared its most effective partner in Syria in the war against ISIS.
The PYD and YPG’s — and thus PKK and SDF’s — aims in regard to Al Bab are clear. Together with Manbij, around 30 kilometers farther east, the town should serve as a land connection between the Kurdish-controlled enclave around the town of Efrin in northwestern Syria and Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria.
Correspondingly, the YPG launched its own attacks on the area around Al Bab.
In attempt to lessen tensions between Turkey and the YPG, the Obama administration not only demanded that the Kurds withdraw from Manbij and the area east of Euphrates River, but also threatened to end all support for them if they failed to follow the order.
The YPG announced its withdrawal and Washington confirmed this no less than three times — but, in fact, nothing happened. On the contrary, on Nov. 14, 2017, the YPG announced its own advance on Al Bab, in turn provoking a battle with Turkish and allied forces in Qabasin at the same time these forced faced an ISIS counteroffensive.
The U.S. reaction to this clash was to announce a halt of its support for the Turkish operation against ISIS. However, for all practical purposes, this meant that the U.S. military was using military bases in Turkey to support a terrorist organization at war with Turkey, a NATO member and therefore a U.S. ally.
Around the same time, Turkish coalition forces began feeling the presence of the other major players in Syria — Iran- and Russia-backed Syrian forces.
Fiercely opposing the idea of any parts of Syria being controlled by somebody other than the regime, commanders of loyalist militias including Quwwat Nimr and Liwa Suqour As Sahra announced, in late October 2016, their plans for an offensive on Al Bab.
Sources in Damascus even indicated the regime’s intention to establish a sort of a no-fly zone for Turkish aircraft over northern Syria.
The focal points of loyalist military operations in Aleppo are Kweres air base, 30 kilometers east of Aleppo City, and the town of As Safira, around 25 kilometers southeast of Aleppo. Constructed with Polish support in the late 1960s as the primary base of the Syrian air force academy, Kweres was besieged by ISIS from 2013 until November 2015.
For its part, As Safira is one of the major centers of the Syrian defense industry, and houses a number of factories that manufacture ammunition. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps owns and operates many of the factories.
Immediately after lifting the siege of Kweres, the Syrian regime repaired the base. A squadron of L-39 fighter-bombers, optimized for night missions, deployed to Kweres. The regime sent a Buk M1E surface-to-air missile system, operated by a combined Russian and Syrian crew, to defend the base.
After As Safira came under repeated attacks by insurgent-operated multiple rocket launchers in October 2016 — prompting the IRGC to complain about “U.S. air strikes” on its factories — the Russians bolstered the town’s defenses with one of its own S-300 surface-to-air missile systems. This in turn prompted the Turkish military to temporarily halt operations against ISIS.
In October 2016, YPG units from Efrin enclave deployed north of Aleppo in cooperation with regime forces and the IRGC and launched several attacks on the western flank of the Turkish coalition, forcing the Turks and their allies to redeploy some units from fighting ISIS to this new front line.
IRGC artillery repeatedly shelled Syrian insurgent and Turkish army positions, and on Nov. 24, two air strikes by Syrian L-39s killed at least three Turkish army soldiers.
Eventually, the IRGC and Russians managed to convince the Syrian regime to prioritize the offensive on eastern Aleppo. With this battle lasting well into late December 2016, the Turkish coalition had enough time to surround Al Bab on three sides. However, the coalition’s first major push into the town was stopped by an ISIS counterattack on Dec. 23, 2016.
As the Turks and their allies got bogged down battling ISIS in Al Bab, the regime advanced on the town from the south in January 2017. This is what led to clashes between Syrian and Turkish coalition troops in early February 2017 — and also prompted the Russian air strike that killed another three Turkish soldiers on Feb. 9.
After failing to reach Al Bab on time, regime forces attacked ISIS position farther east and reached YPG positions southwest of Manbij on Feb. 28. Turkey thus won the race to Al Bab.
It was a hollow victory. The political problems related to Operation Euphrates Shield now loom far greater than the military challenges ever did.
A majority of the Turkish units deployed inside Syria were involved in the coup attempt against Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdogan in April 2016. Wary of emboldening potentially disloyal troops and also fearing retaliation by Syria and Russia, Ankara has been reluctant to fully reinforce Operation Euphrates Shield forces with all the air and artillery support they require.
Moreover, owing to disagreements between the Turks and Americans over the status of the YPG and PYD, the Pentagon likewise has held back some support for the Turkish coalition.
Another issue is the tense relationship between Turkey and its allies from the Syrian insurgency. Ankara — which has openly supported the Syrian uprising over the years — has recruited and paid thousands of Free Syrian Army and Islamist combatants to participate in Operation Euphrates Shield.
At the same time, under U.S. pressure the Turkish government strictly curbed the flow of supplies to moderate insurgents in Idlib governorate, while still permitting Qatar to supply Islamist militants in the same area. Although stubbornly ignored by nearly all Western governments, this imbalance could have grave consequences in the near future.
Ever since the start of the Operation Euphrates Shield, various insurgent commanders and sympathizers have insisted that the ultimate aim of the enterprise should be to lift the siege of eastern Aleppo or to drive all the way to ISIS’s de facto capitol in Ar Raqqa.
Obviously, nothing of these things happened. The cold fact is that Turkey runs the operation for Turkish reasons. While insurgents and Turkey share several common interests, this is by coincidence rather than by design. Ankara isn’t trying to win the Syrian civil war for Syria’s rebels — nor necessarily end the conflict on terms that the United States, Russia, Iran or the Syrian regime would applaud.
While successful in liberating Al Bab from ISIS, the Turkish coalition operation failed in its other, arguably more important goal — to prevent the Kurds from linking their territories in northeastern Syria to regime holdings around Aleppo. Considering the open cooperation between the PYD and YPG and Damascus, this development directly threatens Turkish interests.