Will the Turkish army retreat from al-Bab?

Turkey’s al-Bab assault, as part of its Euphrates Shield operation in the north of Syria, started on 9 December last year. Turkey had entered Syria from Jarablus 15 weeks before, on 24 August.

According to official figures given by the Turkish army, only four soldiers had been killed until the al-Bab assault because the operation had not encountered fierce resistance. However, with al-Bab, this figure has shot up to a total of 67 soldiers killed in action and counting.

Analysts have given varying views on why the Turkish army did not encounter significant resistance from the Islamic State (IS) group: from IS tactically withdrawing to a more defendable al-Bab (with sustainable supply routes from its stronghold Raqqa), to those who claimed tacit collusion between the Turkish army and IS.

In every way possible al-Bab has been a completely different proposition. Other than a fierce resistance by IS, the Syrian army’s operations from the south of al-Bab have complicated the Turks’ onward march. As of yet, no one has been able to say what might happen if the two armies were to meet, with Russia perceived to be deescalating or managing the situation.

Ankara has said it will not give any areas it takes from IS back to the government in Damascus. Damascus, on the other hand, has called the Turks’ Euphrates Shield operation ‘an occupation’.

The latest twist in al-Bab, however, came on Friday when Russian jets bombed and killed three Turkish soldiers on the edges of the besieged town. Although both sides were quick to define this as a ‘friendly fire’ incident, contradictory statements followed as the Russians said the coordinates were given to them by the Turkish army; something the Turkish army squarely rejected with its own statement yesterday.

Again, there is a huge discrepancy in the analytical spectrum of what the Russians’ bombing of the Turks actually meant. While there are those that believe this was a genuine mistake, they seem to be a minority when compared to those who believe the Russians – who are fully backing the Syrian government in the conflict – are forcing the Turks to retreat.

With frustration also being vented by the Turkish government towards the US-led coalition for not supporting its assault in al-Bab, Turkey increasingly seems to be out on a limb.

The possible scenarios for al-Bab today range from the Syrian and Turkish armies practically running a joint operation to take al-Bab back from IS, to them clashing at first sight. Unverified reports have claimed that the latter has already happened.

Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said yesterday that “al-Bab was the final objective of the Euphrates Shield operation”, contradicting Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s claim only a couple of days before that “Raqqa is our next target after al-Bab”.

The Turkish army has lost more than 60 soldiers in al-Bab. The question remains as to what the Turkish government will do in the following days: will it continue an operation that seemingly lacks the blessing of any of the other major powers invested in the conflict, and increasingly its own public? Or, will it just cut its losses?

(Reporting and writing by Giran Ozcan)