FSA says it will continue attacking Syrian government forces, SDF

FSA fighters in al-Bab, (c) Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) backed by Turkey has vowed to attack Syrian government forces (SAA) and the Kurdish-Arab dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria’s north.

In a statement on Tuesday the FSA said they would continue attacking government forces to the south of al-Bab and SDF forces to the southeast. The Euphrates Shield forces are encircled by government troops and SDF fighters, blocking their path to IS stronghold Raqqa, a city the opposition wants to take.

Speaking to Al-Jazeera on condition of anonymity, an FSA commander said the establishing of territorial connection between the SAA and US-backed SDF was to the detriment of the FSA.

A local source told Kom News on Monday that there were no serious clashes between the FSA and SDF on the outskirts of Manbij to the east of al-Bab, only attempts by FSA to infiltrate several villages. However the FSA commander told Al Jazeera that Opposition forces had clashed with the SAA to the south and SDF to the east.

Analysts have been divided as to whether the Euphrates Shield forces (FSA) will try to break the encirclement.

Turkish analyst Metin Gurcan has said Ankara would likely prevent any major escalation between the FSA and government troops ahead of the country’s constitutional referendum mid-April. The military analyst said Russia and the US would also be against an exacerbation of clashes.

However Gurcan did add that the Euphrates Shield forces could move against the SDF in Manbij to consolidate control over al-Bab, where it has built a temporary military base on Al Aqil hill. Turkey’s pretext for the attack is the Kurdish YPG, a major component of the SDF, which Ankara says is an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has waged a 33-year insurgency against the Turkish state for autonomy.

Kurdish sources have said an attack on Manbij would weaken and could derail the ongoing Wrath of Euphrates operation led by the SDF to take Raqqa from the Islamic State group. This is something Ankara could desire, as it has repeatedly requested from the US that SDF forces not be included in the operation, an appeal that has fallen on deaf ears thus far.

However sources warned of other side-effects an attack on Arab-majority Manbij could have, saying it could trigger a wider war between Turkish-FSA and SDF forces. The same local source told Kom News that Turkish-FSA attacks on Manbij, Afrin to the northwest and also Kobani recently were part of a plan to isolate Kurds and the federal project in Syria’s north. “The administration and fighting forces here will not allow that to happen,” he said.

US Central Command General Joseph Votel recently visited the SDF and American special forces on the Raqqa front, while the US military has provided the umbrella group formed of 22 factions, with armoured vehicles and other military gear to take the IS’ de-facto capital. It is unlikely that the operation will be delayed with US promises to take both Raqqa and Mosul before the summer still on the table.

US President Donald Trump is expected to reveal detailed plans for the operation in the coming days.