The complex politics of the battle for Syria’s al-Bab

Sunday 19/02/2017
Turkish forces and members of Free Syrian Army are seen in village on outskirts of al-Bab

Beirut - For decades, most Syrians had heard little to noth­ing about al-Bab, a largely Sunni Arab town 40km north-east of Aleppo. Not a single Syrian head of state has vis­ited the city since the fall of the Ot­toman empire after the first world war.
Historians wrote about how it was captured from the Romans by the second Muslim caliph, Umar ibn al- Khattab, in the seventh century and Muslim Shias paid particular atten­tion to al-Bab because it housed the tomb and shrine of the brother of the fourth caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib, son-in-law of the Prophet Moham­mad and who, along with his wife, is revered by Shias.
But now, al-Bab is a strategic tar­get for the principal powers engaged in the labyrinthine Syrian war. It is also at the vortex of the political in­trigues that have long dictated the course of the nearly 6-year-old sav­age conflict.
In 2013, two years into the Syria war, al-Bab was overrun by the Is­lamic State (ISIS). Since November 2016, the Turkish Army has been advancing on al-Bab with the de­clared objective of liberating it from ISIS.
On February 11th, a spokesman for the Turkish government said its military would halt once it seized al-Bab and had no ambition to move on to Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS’s caliphate on the north-east­ern bank of the Euphrates.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan immediately dismissed the statement, saying: “There might be a miscommunication. There is no such thing as stopping when al- Bab is secured. After that, there are Manbij and Raqqa.”
Manbij, west of the Euphrates, was also held by ISIS until its libera­tion by Kurdish militias in August 2016. Erdogan hopes to eject them as well and include the town in his ambitious Syrian safe zone.
When the Turkish military launched Operation Euphrates Shield on August 24th, 2016, it rum­bled into the border city of Jarabu­lus, driving out ISIS.
The operation had three declared objectives. One was to prevent the linkage of the Kurdish cantons of Afrin and Kobane, which would have created a Syrian Kurdistan.
The second objective was to clear 5,000 sq. km of land from ISIS con­trol. The third was to create a safe zone to resettle the 2.5 million Syr­ian refugees who have been living in Turkey since 2011. In addition to al-Bab, the zone would include Manbij, Azaz, 32km north-west of Aleppo, and Raqqa.
At first glance, the Turkish op­erations seem fully coordinated be­tween Ankara and Moscow, which has said and done nothing to deter the advances of the Turkish forces.
If the Russians approve of the Turkish project, however, why are Russian-backed Syrian government troops also advancing on al-Bab from the south? They are currently at Tadef, about 2km from the city and vowing to push forward.
Is it a battlefield manoeuvre to divert everyone’s attention from a surprise attack elsewhere, perhaps on Raqqa? Or does it speak of differ­ences between Russia and Turkey over who controls what in northern Syria, with each side advancing its proxies to secure as much terri­tory as possible before US President Donald Trump decides to take uni­lateral action on Syria?
Trump has often repeated his de­sire to establish no-fly safe zones in Syria to prevent the flow of more refugees — a phenomenon that he clearly dreads — and his words have been music to Erdogan’s ears.
Such a safe zone would be ex­pensive and require protection from both ground and air forces. Although the Americans are reluc­tant to get involved in such a risky enterprise, the Turks would gladly offer if asked.
On February 9th, however, Rus­sian warplanes bombed a Turkish position in al-Bab, killing four sol­diers. The Turkish Army said it was an “accident” but the Russians did not apologise publicly as Erdogan did when his troops shot down a straying Russian jet in November 2015.
What the Russians did was blame the February 9th incident on the Turks, claiming they gave the wrong coordinates on Turkish positions. There was even speculation that the Syrians had purposely given their Russian allies faulty intelligence to cause a Turkish-Russian confron­tation, although that is highly un­likely.
A day-and-a-half before the so-called accident, Erdogan spoke with Trump for 45 minutes by telephone, seeking his support to march on Raqqa before the city is overrun by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia, or by the Syr­ian Army.
Erdogan said he would gladly do the job to prevent the Kurds from gaining the honour of taking Raqqa, the current great prize in the war on ISIS.
Trump refused to end his back­ing for Syrian Kurds, and earlier in February, the US Army received re­quests for anti-tank weapons, mine detectors and other equipment to help them complete their advance on Raqqa.
This likely sent shivers down Er­dogan’s spine. He is desperately try­ing to talk Trump out of the project, inching dangerously close to upset­ting the Russians.
They want him to understand that they are the ones in control of Syria, not the United States.
Perhaps the so-called accident was a veiled Russian message to the Turks, along with the advance of government troops on both al- Bab and Raqqa, reminding Erdogan that all options are still on the table if he doesn’t jump fully and uncon­ditionally into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lap.