The al-Bab Military Council
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region--After the capture of Jarablus by the Turkish army, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Turkish army are racing to take control of the Syrian town of al-Bab, halfway between Manbij and Aleppo.
The Turkish army, with the help of armed groups from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), entered the Syrian border town of Jarablus on August 24. The Islamic State (ISIS), which was in control, withdrew from Jarablus without engaging in the fight.
Now the sights are set on al-Bab, which has been surrounded on all four sides.
The Syrian army is 12 kilometres to the south, in Aran village. Thirty kilometres to the north, the Turkish army is in control of al-Rai. To the west of the town, Kurdish forces are in Afrin canton, 30 kilometres from al-Bab. And 21 kilometres to the northwest, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are in the Manbij area.
Many of the forces are looking to al-Bab to consolidate their military position.
Yasir Ibrahim Yusuf, a commander of the Turkish-backed Turkmen Nuradin Zangi Brigades, told Rudaw, “The plan is to take al-Bab from the Islamic State. We try day and night to reach al-Bab quickly.”
On August 14, after liberating Manbij from Islamic State, the YPG-led SDF announced the formation of the al-Bab Military Council, with the aim of clearing ISIS from that town. They have recaptured three villages from the Islamic State around the town.
A source from the al-Bab Military Council who spoke to Rudaw on the condition of anonymity, said, “Turkey wants to stop our operation on al-Bab. We are trying to open a corridor to the south of al-Bab, stretching from Manbij to Afrin, to encircle al-Bab”.
Fawzi Sleman, the YPG’s spokesperson in the Shahba region around Manbij, said that the Kurdish forces are not joining the push for al-Bab. “We have our own project,” Sleman told Rudaw. “We are working along our project. We are not racing against anyone and we will clear our land from terror.”
After the Turkish army entered Jarablus, they clashed with forces of the SDF’s Jarablus Military Council. The US intervened to negotiate a ceasefire, announced on August 29 and accepted by the SDF but denied by Turkey.
Aqdi Ali Hajo, spokesperson for the Jarablus Military Council, told Rudaw, “According to the agreement reached with Turkey, Turkey can only operate along the border. It cannot intervene more than 12 kilometres into Syrian soil. If it heads towards al-Bab, the al-Bab Military Council will confront it.”
Amberin Zaman, a US-based Turkish journalist writing on the Turkish Diken website, noted that the balance of power in northern Syria was changed when Turkey crossed the border and she questioned which side the United States would support, Turkey or the Kurds. “Washington has not made a decision on this yet,” she wrote.
The YPG’s Fawzi Sleman agrees, saying they asked the US to take a firm stand on al-Bab. “We asked them to take a stand on al-Bab. They replied that a decision will be made in Washington.”
Although the American decision will likely be a decisive factor in who ends up in control of al-Bab, analysts say the US is seriously concerned about the jihadist tendencies of some of the Syrian groups Turkey is backing and fighting alongside.
During the Jarablus operation, the groups Failaq Al-Sham, Jabha Shamiyah, Nuradin Zangi Brigades, Squr Al-Jabal, Jaishi Tahri, and Ahrar Al-Sham all supported the Turkish army.
Metin Gurcan, a Turkish security analyst wrote on Al-Monitor, “Washington and Moscow turning a blind eye to the jihadist tendencies of those groups has its own importance.”
The Turkish government is well aware of these concerns. A source within the Turkish government told Al-Monitor, “The Syrian war is an ideological war. A Shiite for the twelfth Imam of Shiites and a member of the YPG for Apo [Ocalan] will sacrifice their lives. Who and why does a fighter from the Free Syrian Army sacrifice their life for? If not for jihadi beliefs, many of the FSA fighters fight for money, like a bandit.”
Ali Hajo, the spokesperson for the Jarablus Military Council, said many of the groups in Jarablus backed by Turkey are not from the area. “They brought those groups from elsewhere and they are not known to the people from here. If they were not backed by Turkey, they could not stand the local pressure even for one day”.