Turkish Soldiers Are Dying in Operation Euphrates Shield
Offensive stalls at the edge of Al-Bab as the Islamic State digs in
by PAUL IDDON
Dec. 21 was the costliest single day for the Turkish army’s Euphrates Shield incursion into Syria. At least 16 Turkish soldiers, supporting an assault force of 1,500–3,000 Free Syrian Army militia fighters, died in clashes with the Islamic State in its stronghold of Al-Bab.
The Turkish military claimed to have killed 160 militants in response.
The ramshackle, Turkish-backed offensive has come with deceptive victories and major problems for Ankara since it launched on Aug. 24. The Turkish government claimed Euphrates Shield began well. However, the Islamic State did not mount as heavy a defense as it could have. The group even evacuated its militants from the border town of Jarabulus on the first day.
Since then, Turkey has presented Jarabulus as a model for a Turkish-administrated safe zone in northwest Syria. But Turkey’s decision to attack both the Islamic State and the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units — or YPG — has created problems.
Turkish tanks and armored vehicles proved highly vulnerable to anti-tank weapons used by these groups. U.S.-made M-60 Patton tanks burst into flames after being hit in ambushes. As many as a dozen of these tanks may have been lost to such attacks.
As the the offensive moved into villages abandoned by the Islamic State, soldiers triggered hidden explosive traps left behind. Scores of Turkish-backed FSA fighters have died in such a manner.
While Turkey has de-emphasized these losses, it has heralded the FSA’s Oct. 16 capture of the small town of Dabiq from the Islamic State, the town for which the terror group named its glossy and lurid propaganda magazine.
Dabiq, however, only ever held symbolic importance for the militants and amounted to little more than a small outlying town in their caliphate, and they didn’t allot substantial manpower to defend it.
This all led up to the current battle for Al-Bab — a strategically important city about 50 kilometers northwest of Aleppo with a pre-war population of about 60,000 — which the Islamic State has chosen to fight to the death over.
Turkey’s FSA allies have spent weeks surrounding the town, cutting its supply lines with fire support from Turkish tanks and warplanes. Here, the operation is steadily losing momentum. After the rapid capture of Jarabulus and Dabiq, Al-Bab has proven to be a much tougher fight.
Making the fight more difficult has been the Syrian government’s firm opposition to a Turkish-backed FSA takeover of Al-Bab. While Damascus denounced Euphrates Shield from day one as a “flagrant violation” of Syrian sovereignty, it did not do much to counter it until the Turkish army and the FSA approached Al-Bab.
On Oct. 26, a Syrian helicopter dropped barrel bombs on the FSA southeast of Dabiq, killing two and wounding five. For a week in November, Turkish jet fighters stopped breaching Syrian air space after Damascus said it activated surface-to-air missiles and threatened to use them on Turkish intrusions.
Only after talks with Russia was Turkey able to resume air support to its FSA proxies.
Then on Nov. 24, a mysterious air attack killed four Turkish soldiers outside Al-Bab. Ankara initially blamed Damascus, and Moscow reassured Ankara the attackers were not Russian.
Subsequent investigation and speculation has even gone so far as to suggest that the perpetrator was an Iranian-made drone, possibly used by one of the Iranian-backed Shiite militias in the Aleppo region. The possibility it was an Islamic State-made drone cannot be ruled out.
Turkey and the FSA have a thorny geographical problem. Euphrates Shield has extended itself 30 kilometers into Syria, making it difficult for the FSA — if attacked — to retreat to the border as in previous battles. A well-entrenched Islamic State can also bleed these forces and make the capture of Al-Bab as costly as possible.
Turkish drones flying over the city have spotted the Islamic State heavily fortifying its positions and preparing vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices — the latter a weapon the militants deploy with suicidal drivers in massive numbers.
The Islamic State has released two videos, one purportedly showing militants burning two Turkish soldiers alive and another showcasing what appears to be a captured Leopard 2 tank, the most advanced in the Turkish arsenal.
Turkey appears to have tried to compensate for these losses by increasing its bombing of Al-Bab. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights conflict monitoring group reported that Turkish air strikes killed 72 civilians, 21 of them children, on Dec. 22. The following day another 16 civilians, three of them children, died in subsequent strikes.
These strikes constituted the largest killing of civilians by Turkish forces in Syria since the campaign began.
As the Turkish-backed FSA forces push into Al-Bab, more atrocities like this could well transpire against the civilian population there, decreasing the chance Al-Bab’s residents will perceive, never mind welcome, the incoming FSA fighters as liberators.
These operational shortcomings on the part of Ankara are likely the result of heavy reliance on its FSA proxy fighters and the widespread purges of military officers by the Turkish government in recent months following the failed July 15 coup attempt.
If not rectified, Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation will undoubtedly prove more costly for Ankara as it pushes deeper into the Syrian quagmire.