By Semih Idiz, AL MONITOR
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been promising since September to liberate the northern Syrian town of al-Bab from the Islamic State (IS) and move east to Manbij to rid it of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey claims that the YPG – the core of the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting IS – and its parent organization, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), are terrorist groups linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), but it has failed to generate international support for this position. Recent developments on the ground also point to increasing difficulties for Erdogan’s efforts to fulfill his promises.
After capturing the nearby IS stronghold of Dabiq in October, Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) militias, Ankara’s main proxy in Syria, have been unable to muster a serious attack against al-Bab. The situation grew militarily complicated for Turkey after its jets began striking YPG targets in the area – resulting in the United States withdrawing air support for FSA and Turkish forces – and after Russia and Syrian regime forces made serious headway against the FSA in Aleppo, to which al-Bab provides access.
Turkey had launched Operation Euphrates Shield into northern Syria on Aug. 24, proclaiming that its mission was to defeat IS, push YPG fighters east of the Euphrates River and establish a 45-kilometer-deep (28 miles) “safe zone” on the Syrian side of the border. Ankara moved to establish a safe zone on its own after failing to secure international support for one. It claims such an area will provide protection for civilians uprooted by the war and also prevent illegal crossings into and out of Turkey by members and recruits of IS and similar groups.
It is no secret, however, that Turkey’s major reason for the proposed zone is to prevent Syrian Kurds from establishing a contiguous region along the Turkish border. The zone would include the yet-to-be liberated al-Bab to the south, and if Ankara has its way, Manbij, just west of the Euphrates, as well.
On Nov. 22 at the conference “Turkey’s New Security Concept,” Erdogan claimed the FSA was at the gates of al-Bab and implied that victory was imminent. “But that won’t be enough,” he said. “From there, we will move on to Manbij. The PYD and YPG are in Manbij. … We want them to leave.”
A few days after these remarks, Erdogan had a rude awakening, when on Nov. 24 an apparent airstrike hit Turkish special forces accompanying FSA fighters near al-Bab. Four Turkish soldiers were killed and nine injured. Some believe the attack was actually an IS suicide bombing, but the Turkish military said on the day of the incident that the evidence pointed to a Syrian jet.
Adding to Ankara’s shock was that the strike occurred on the first anniversary of the downing of a Russian warplane by Turkey after it strayed into Turkish airspace. Although Turkey and Russia reconciled over the event earlier this year, after Erdogan apologized to …read more