By Mohammed Syed
Turkish jets have been striking targets in the al-Bab region of North Syria in an operation carried out with Syrian rebels signaling a move towards the Islamic State stronghold in Raqqa.
Al-Bab, 20 miles from the Turkish border, has been the target focused on by Turkish forces since the Euphrates Shield campaign was launched in early August to push ISIS off their battle frontier. The campaign also serves the purpose of destabilizing and preventing Kurdish militia gains, by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (YPG) against ISIS.
A strategic push for al-Bab would allow for the Turkish military to broaden their influence within the buffer zone created, and clear the path for Turkish forces to push on successfully towards Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria.
According to the Syrian Observatory of Human rights, a NGO based in Britain that uses internal contacts and a network of international resources to monitor the war, ISIS still controls 90 percent of the al-Bab municipality. Turkish shelling and strikes have resulted in 45 dead civilians, including 18 children through the weekend.
The operation has undergone complications due to the large amount of civilians still in the city. Anti-ISIS leaflets rained on the city in December, as Turkish backed Free Syrian Army forces edged on the assault.
“The Free Syrian Army forces, sacrificing their lives for your freedom and salvation, and the Republic of Turkey which opens their gates to their brothers in need strive to bring security and peace to your lands. Help us. Until we free your territories from these traitors, and in order to protect them, evacuate your loved ones to safer places,” stated the leaflets.
Turkey has been confident in its campaign against al-Bab. “The operation to gain complete control of the al-Bab region has neared its end and the resistance of the Daesh terror group has largely been broken,” the Turkish military said in a statement to the press early on Friday.
“While the neighborhoods of the city have been reached, control in most parts of al-Bab have been established and a planned operation for taking control of all of the city as part of the search activities are ongoing,” the Turkish military maintained.
The Turkish military sees the Kurdish Democratic fighters (PYD) as a threat. The military has said that 185 terrorists have been neutralized throughout the campaign, mostly Islamic state fighters- but also including Kurds.
“It is time the U.S. leadership made clear who they are cooperating with in their Syria policy,” a senior Turkish government official told Reuters. “U.S. soldiers are present in Syrian territory, and we saw the results. They trained the PKK-YPG, which we call a terrorist organization, gave them weapons and supported terrorist groups.”
Turkey presented two proposals to the United States on how to carry out a joint military operation in Raqqa, reported Newsweek. Ankara has told Washington that the operation should be carried out through local Arab militants with support from Turkish forces, rather than the U.S. backed Syrian Democratic Force (SDF), which is dominated by Kurdish forces. Washington’s support for the Kurdish forces has created tension with Ankara.
U.S. Marine Corps General, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford visited the Incirlik air base in southern Turkey last weekend, where he met with Turkish military counterpart Hulusi Akar. The Incirlik base is a key strategic position that the U.S.-led coalition has conducted strikes out of in the last month.
Turkey hopes to see Turkish and U.S. special forces, backed by Syrian rebels, moving into Syria through the border at the town of Tel Abyad, currently seized by Kurdish YPG forces. The joint forces would move through Kurdish territory, to push into Raqqa, 60 miles south, according to Newsweek.
The U.S. would have to negotiate with the Kurds to allow the Turkish backed forces to move through a 12-mile strip of Kurdish territory.
The other proposed plan involves a push to Raqqa from al-Bab. However, between Raqqa and al-Bab, lies 110 miles of rocky and mountainous terrain, making it a much harder operation.
Cooperation with the Kurdish fighters seems unlikely. Commander Adnan Abu Amjad of the Kurdish fighters in Manbij city at the Syrian front, told Al Jazeera that “his forces will fight to defend any move by Turkey to take over the area.”
“If Erdogan wants to come to Manbij, it’s his business, but we will defend our city with all the strength we can find. As Syrian people, we’ll resist any interference in our internal affairs,” said Abu Amjad to Al Jazeera.
Major General Rupert Jones, the British deputy commander of the anti-ISIS coalition has also backed and supported Kurdish involvement in the campaign against ISIS, reported Al Masdar news.
“The force that looks most likely capable of conducting the liberation of Raqqa remains the SDF. Are we confident in the SDF? Absolutely we are,” said Major Jones to Al Masdar. “They re-took Manbij, in a very tough fight, and they prevailed in the face of a tough opposition.”
The Trump administration reportedly is offering Turkey a larger role in the anti-ISIS coalition’s assault on Raqqa. U.S. President Trump and Turkish President Erdogan had their first phone call on February 7.
Trump refused to criticize Erdogan’s campaign of mass arrests and civil dismissals following the attempted Turkish coup late last year. “I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country.”
The Pentagon reported earlier last week that ISIS leaders and administration are beginning to leave Raqqa in anticipation of a Western ground assault. The U.S.-led coalition has been bombing Raqqa for months.
ISIS leaders “are beginning the process of leaving Raqqa and moving their operations farther downriver,” said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesperson to Al Arabiya news. Davis stated that ISIS officials are “heading east along the north bank of the Euphrates River toward Deir el-Zour” because they see “the end is near in Raqqa.”
U.S.-backed fighters advanced to capture a village in northern Syria on Saturday from ISIS, reported AP. They are now closer to cutting a road that links two major Islamic State cities in Syria, and closing in on Raqqa.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildrim warned the West against cooperating with the Kurdish forces last week.
“We have said that a terror organization cannot be used against another terror organization,” Yildirim said. “That doesn’t work in friendship. I think the new U.S. administration will take this evaluation into consideration.”
As the Kurdish-led Democratic forces approach Raqqa, anticipating a long and bloody battle against a defensively armed and prepared Islamic State, U.S. military strategy under the new Trump administration remains uncertain on committing to the same level of collaboration with the Kurdish in the ground assault.
Yildirim was insistent in U.S. non-cooperation with the Kurdish forces. “We are hoping they will not make such a decision. If they do, it would be a serious problem in relations with the U.S.,” Yildirim said.