Turkish forces and their allied Free Syrian Army have besieged al-Bab for three months. Photo: AA
Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus unequivocally dismissed claims that Turkey will cede control of the northwest Syrian city of al-Bab back to Damascus late last month. Turkish ground forces and allied Free Syrian Army (FSA) militiamen have been besieging Islamic State (ISIS) militants in that city for three months now, resulting in most of the approximately 50 Turkish army, and several more FSA fighters, casualties sustained since the start of Operation Euphrates Shield last August.
Unlike Jarablus and al-Rai, situated directly on the Syrian-Turkish border, al-Bab is about 30 kilometers into Syrian territory. The US-led coalition supported Turkey in the initial phases of Euphrates Shield, when they were fighting ISIS along the border, until they reached al-Bab, which Washington considered too deep into Syrian territory. Furthermore, back in November, Syria reportedly activated air defense missiles in northwest Syria and threatened to shoot down Turkish warplanes operating in Syrian airspace in support of the ground operation. Consequently Turkish jets did not enter Syrian airspace for a week until Ankara consulted with Russian military officials and were then able to resume strikes.
In January, Russian jets began coordinating anti-ISIS airstrikes with the Turks in al-Bab, prompting Washington to continue supporting the Turks there too. Russia and Turkey now have an official coordination agreement for these operations.
Also the Syrian regime, capitalizing on the defeat of the opposition in Aleppo, which is situated another 40 kilometers to al-Bab's southwest, has recently captured three villages seven kilometers to al-Bab's south, possibly putting them in a position to forcibly stake their right to reclaim al-Bab in the future. This is not unlike their, albeit failed, attempt to reestablish a sizable foothold in ISIS-occupied Raqqa province last June after the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG)-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition advanced into that province's northern countryside in May.
It's presently unclear if Russia will accept Turkey's continued presence in al-Bab, if and when they capture it from ISIS, and urge its ally in Damascus to follow suit. Damascus may prove less inclined to risk confronting Turkey over al-Bab without Russian backing. For its part Russia is unlikely to do so at the present since it has brokered a largely successful ceasefire in Syria – which excludes ISIS and the group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra – with Turkey.
“Russia’s best interest is to have a more cooperative Turkey, because via Turkey it can exert a limited influence on the Syrian opposition and channel the military conflict into a more preferable direction,” Timur Akhmetov, an analyst on Russia's Middle East foreign policy, told Rudaw English.
“A mid-term presence of Turkey in northern Syria is not perceived by the Russian decision-makers as a serious threat to the Russian interests,” Akhmetov added. “In both, military and political terms, Turkey will be tolerated in Syria as long as it keeps focusing on fighting the ISIS and the PYD [the main Syrian Kurdish political party] and abstaining from politically challenging Assad.”
Akmetov believes this because “Russian decision-makers have this state-centrist mindset, whereby national interests enjoy high priority in international relations.”
It's clear the Turkish incursion into northwest Syria was all about countering both ISIS and the YPG, both of whom the Turkish state perceives as serious security threats. Its current siege of al-Bab is as much about routing ISIS as it is about preventing the YPG/SDF from seizing that strategically important urban center which, under Turkish control, would stand as a major obstacle to the Kurds’ attempts to link up their northeastern cantons with their sole northwestern one, Afrin.
“When Russia was approached by Turkey last year, before the start of Euphrates Shield, it demonstrated that, first, it acknowledges Ankara's national security concerns in regards to ISIS and the PYD,” concluded Akmetov. “On the other hand, by allowing the Turkish forces to operate on Syrian soil and airspace Russia wanted Turkey to concentrate its political and military efforts on the terrorist threats, rather than on fighting the Syrian government.”
The Turkish government recently appears to have accepted that their prior desire to oust Assad, through supporting opposition groups, is now unrealistic and have consequently deferred to whatever decision results from current and future negotiations. As a result, the likelihood of a direct confrontation between Ankara and Damascus over al-Bab is less likely, at least for the time being.