Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s Chief of General Staff, was in the southern Turkish city of Kilis today where he visited the Central Command Centre of his army’s Euphrates Shield operation in northern Syria.
Akar, who was informed by commanders in charge of the centre about the latest developments in the operation, took to the podium to talk to the soldiers that had gathered to listen to him.
After thanking the soldiers for their bravery and performance, Akar outlined the objectives of the operation, “You conducted the operations with the utmost devotion and heroism. The Euphrates Shield operation was launched on 24 August, 2016 as part of our right to self-defence, to eradicate the threat by terrorist organisations, to secure our borders and ensure the security our people, to prevent terrorist organisations from settling into the region and to install peace and stability.”
Yesterday, after a ferocious battle that lasted for more than 80 days, the Turkish army announced that it had full control of the town of al-Bab after the few remaining Islamic State (IS) fighters retreated.
The victory came at a cost, however. Although the al-Bab offensive started after the mid-way point of the Euphrates Shield operation, prior to the offensive only four Turkish soldiers had died in clashes against IS; in al-Bab, this shot up to a total number of 71 soldiers killed in action.
Explaining why al-Bab was such a difficult battle, Akar said, “This fight differed from a conventional battle. The fact that it was an asymmetric struggle as car-bombs, suicide bombers, snipers, and improvised bombs were deployed, made it necessary for us to progress with caution.”
The town of al-Bab was as much a diplomatic minefield as it was in the literal sense. With the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) initially approaching the IS-controlled town from the south, tensions between the hostile Syrian and Turkish armies could potentially have led to violent encounters. However, with the Russian air bombardment of the Turkish army on 9 February that killed four soldiers all this tension seemed to fizzle out.
After this day, the SAA held its line 10 kilometres south of al-Bab and allowed the Turkish army a free run (albeit a costly one) into the IS-held urban centre.
The question of what is to be done next, however, largely remained. After several contradictory statements by Turkish government officials on what its objectives were after the capture of al-Bab, a more synchronised position was upheld after Turkish president Erdogan announced that Manbij and Raqqa were the next targets.
Meanwhile, Turkey intensified efforts to convince the USA that it should partner with the Turkish army rather than the Kurdish YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the operation for de facto IS capital Raqqa.
However, with the SDF deep into its Wrath of Euphrates operation to liberate Raqqa and now only four kilometres from the city’s northern neighbourhoods, US Defence Secretary James Mattis had told his Turkish counterpart Fikri Isik, “We already have an A plan, you can come up with plan B,” adding that they were going to stick to their current plan with the YPG.
Officials of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) told US Central Command General Joseph Votel who visited Kurdish city of Kobani and the Raqqa front on Friday that they will end the operation to capture Raqqa from IS and revert their attention to Manbij, if Turkish and Free Syrian Army forces attack the northern Syrian city.
And now with the New York Times reporting today that Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who commands the American-led task force that is fighting IS in Iraq and Syria, saying that he believes the Kurdish forces in Syria are not a threat to Turkey, it seems Ankara has failed to convince the US to change horses in midstream.
This morning Hulusi Akar told his soldiers and generals commanding his army’s Euphrates Shield operation that, “with al-Bab now under control, all the targets of the [Euphrates Shield] operation that were set out at the beginning have been met.”
The very near future will show whether Akar’s statement is Turkey accepting that it cannot progress any further into Syria or simply that new targets have to be drawn up.