Is Turkey trapped in al-Bab?

A Turkish Leopard 2 tank that Islamic State fighters reportedly destroyed near al-Bab

By Giran Ozcan*

Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation started on 24 August last year when its army crossed into Syria via the border town of Jarablus. On 9 December, three-and-a-half months after its operations began, Turkey announced its assault on the town of al-Bab controlled by the Islamic State (IS) group since 2014.

According to official figures given by the Turkish army, only four soldiers had been killed until the al-Bab assault began. However this figure has shot up to a total of 68 soldiers killed in action since then; 16 of them in the last five days. The Euphrates Shield operation can and should be divided into two sections: before and after al-Bab.

Before al-Bab it was relatively plain sailing for the Turkish army and its allied groups, who are still insisting on flying the flag of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) despite obituaries for the FSA being more than prevalent. Jarablus, which was the last border area under IS control, was seized by the Turkish army on the same day prompting some to claim that IS and Turkey were colluding. These claims, even if they still exist, are no longer being talked of in the present tense.

Asides from the high human cost of Turkey’s al-Bab assault, the Syrian Arab Army’s (SAA) operation to capture the town is close to entering al-Bab from the South, further complicating what is fast turning out to be something of a quagmire for the Turkish army.

The question remains as to what will happen when the two armies actually do meet; or alternatively, that question was answered when the Russians bombed and killed three Turkish soldiers last week when skirmishes occurred between the Turks and the SAA to the west of al-Bab. Analysis of this incident ranges from some calling it an ‘honest mistake’, to others saying it was a warning shot from the Russians.

Whichever way one chooses to look at the incident, it is not possible to neglect the fact that after the Russian bombing Turkish officials have given drastically differing statements on Turkish military aspirations as part of their Euphrates Shield operation.

Within 24 hours of each other the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister, Numan Kurtulmus, and the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, gave contradictory statements regarding the objectives of the operation. While Kurtulmus said, “al-Bab is the final objective,” Erdogan said, “al-Bab is not our final objective. After that is sorted, we will target Manbij and Raqqa.”

Russia, the Syrian government, US-led coalition forces, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces are all locked in fierce battle against IS in different regions. While these forces seem to be progressing and implementing their long-term plans, the Turkish army is increasingly looking like it is out on a limb, with President Erdogan having already complained that the coalition has not supported his army’s al-Bab assault.

There isn’t a myriad of scenarios for al-Bab from this point onwards. One of three things could happen after IS is defeated: The Turkish army could stay in the areas it has taken; the Turkish army could retreat; or, the SAA and Turkish army could clash.

With President Erdogan also concentrating on a referendum process in which the people of Turkey will vote on a set of constitutional changes that would change the country’s administrative set-up, giving Erdogan the presidential system he has long desired, a perceived defeat in al-Bab will undermine his tough guy aura, something that has served him well throughout his reign.

Al-Bab may not define the outcome of the Syrian conflict, or even have any significant bearing on the future prospects of the Islamic State group; but it is increasingly looking like it will shape Turkish state prospects both regionally and domestically.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kom News.

Giran Ozcan is an editor at Kom News.