The complex politics of the battle for Syria’s 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.