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Al-Bab: A stumbling block for Erdogan in Syria

The Turkish military operation Euphrates Shield, in the course of which the Turkish army invaded Syria in August 2016, has lasted for almost half a year. Initially, the Turkish Army Command planned that its army would gloriously march along the Syrian-Turkish border and, assisted by the Ankara-backed ‘Free Syrian Army’, defeat the Kurdish Peshmerga units and push ISIS as far as possible from the border.

However, during five months of clashes, Turkey’s main achievement has been to advance towards the town of al-Bab, located only 30 km south of the Syria-Turkey border and still controlled by Islamic State forces. The Turkish operation within al-Bab town limits started on Nov. 6, 2016. Initially, about 1,500 FSA militants aided by 3,000 Turkish troops, some 40 tanks and more than 15 armoured personnel carriers attacked the town. In addition, the Turkish air force regularly bombed and still keeps bombing IS positions in al-Bab.

It would be reasonable to assume that together with the FSA militants, the Turkish army would easily be able to overcome the terrorists’ resistance, whose forces, according to some sources, numbered no more than 1,000 fighters. However, the Turkish infantry and special forces were unable to accomplish the task.

According to official numbers, the army’s casualties at al-Bab alone have reached 34 personnel, while in the entire Euphrates Shield operation, Ankara lost 47 troops. The town has become a true stumbling block for Ankara and the armed groups it backs.

Turkey seems to be stuck in the region. Further proof of this is that on Jan. 10, another Turkish reinforcement convoy with soldiers and armed vehicles reached the outskirts of al-Bab.

 

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Convoy moving towards the Syrian border (photo: Milli Gazete)

Recall that in December 2016, advancing Turkish units and their allies gained western al-Bab suburbs and were preparing to start an offensive from the heights overlooking the town. However, a sudden counterattack by ISIS terrorists led to the badly trained FSA militants fleeing the battlefield. Then, Turkey’s forces lost more than a dozen tanks. What are the reasons for the Turkish army’s constant failures?

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One of the Turkish tanks captured by ISIS during the counterattack on Dec. 21 (a still from the video released by the IS)

 

Obviously, the situation in al-Bab is influenced by the social and political conditions in Turkey and worldwide. One of the primary goals of the Euphrates Shield operation was to prevent Kurdish forces from expanding their control of territories along the Turkish border. This goal was successfully achieved by Ankara. However, this accomplishment caused friction between Turkey and the U.S., as Washington supports the Kurds who also aim to capture al-Bab. The FSA and Turkish military are fighting on two fronts: against ISIS and against the Kurds.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also facing domestic troubles, including an increased internal terrorist threat and continuing repression and purgings which have dealt a great blow to the Turkish army. Popular discontent is on the rise in Turkey. Under these difficult domestic circumstances, a major military operation in the neighboring country of Syria may well pave the way for another coup attempt.

Moreover, the combat effectiveness of the FSA fighters, trained by western instructors, have proven to be to be extremely low.

Erdogan is facing a rather difficult quandary of getting bogged down near al-Bab while simultaneously waging war against ISIS and the Kurds and, in a worst-case scenario, facing the Syrian army fighting against the Turkish intervention. Either way, it’s evident that the Turkish blitzkrieg in northern Syria is turning out to be a failure.

 

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