Operations to oust Islamic State from al-Bab will continue for at least several more weeks despite recent Turkish advances
Turkish-backed rebel forces entered the Islamic State-held (IS) city of al-Bab on 11 February, for the first time since Ankara launched its operation to oust IS in August. Heavy fighting is ongoing in the western districts, but the majority of the city, and the neighbouring towns of Qabasin and Bza’a, remain under IS’s control.
The recent advances, which were facilitated by increased Turkish and Russian air strikes, were likely motivated by the rapid progress of pro-regime forces toward the city’s south-western suburbs in the weeks before latest stage of the Turkish offensive. The Turkish-backed rebels are seeking to prevent the Government expanding its territorial control in and around al-Bab because the city is located on major roads linking Aleppo and Manbij and could serve as a hub for future rebel operations against Aleppo. Meanwhile, the recent rebel push was also likely motivated by Ankara’s domestic considerations: President Erdogan wants to be seen to prevent Kurdish forces from increasing their presence in the border region ahead of the April referendum on an Executive Presidency (see today’s Turkey Report).
This timing also explains recent statements in which Erdogan claimed Turkish forces would conduct anti-IS operations in Raqqa if the US agreed to support Turkish-backed rebels, rather than the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF has long been expected to lead the offensive against Raqqa and it is highly unlikely that the Turkish-backed rebels will be allowed to supplant the Kurdish force as this would fuel tensions with Moscow and Damascus. Moreover, as yet there is no sign that the new US administration will abandon its cooperation with the SDF.
In any case, IS’s concerted defence of al-Bab means the operations to clear the city will take at least several more weeks. Pro-regime forces have not advanced beyond the town of Tadif, 3 km south of al-Bab, as a result of Russian negotiations to avoid clashes. The rebels are therefore solely responsible for removing IS from the dense urban areas, so progress will remain slow.
In the meantime, IS is likely to respond to the increasing pressure around al-Bab with reprisal attacks in Turkey. In Syria, the group controls much of Dair al-Zour province and the Iraqi border, and will seek to demonstrate that it maintains strong capabilities in the country by striking new areas. In particular, it will likely seek to take advantage of increased fighting between regime and rebel forces (see below). This desire was demonstrated by a suicide attack targeting a police station in Nawa, Deraa province on 20 February, and an operation against rebels in the Deraa countryside that was launched by the IS-affiliated Army of Khaled bin al-Walid the same day.