Syrian rebel fighters, backed by Turkish military, started a new offensive to drive Islamic State from the Syrian city of al-Bab, competing with Kurdish militias who sought to control the city and threatening the Kurdish dreams in the area.
Al-Bab, located 30 km from Aleppo, is fast becoming a major frontline in the war in northern Syria. Its military operation is bringing Free Syrian Army rebels backed by Turkish armor closer than ever to front lines held by the Syrian government and its Iranian and Russian allies in nearby Aleppo.
Turkish campaign against ISIS in al-Bab came in parallel with the march of Kurdish militias against ISIS in Raqqa. However, both parts have different motives.
Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan have previously said Turkey’s military operations in Syria aimed to secure al-Bab and the town of Manbij, which a group of Kurdish militias seized from ISIS in August, but were not intended to stretch to Aleppo.
During the new offensive, Turkish jets hit 15 “targets” in the al-Bab area of northern Syria on Sunday.
Ten defensive positions, command centres and an ammunition store used by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group were destroyed in the raids, the army said in a statement.
Nine Syrian rebels were killed and 52 wounded during clashes in the area, it added.
“There is nothing between us and al-Bab,” said a rebel commander in one of the groups taking part in the offensive.
“If not in hours then in a very few days we will be inside al-Bab,” the commander said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Monday cited residents saying areas surrounding al-Bab were being struck by Turkish and FSA artillery. Another FSA commander said rebels were less than 3 km (2 miles) away.
“God willing with the capture of al-Bab, we will be on the outskirts of the (Aleppo) industrial zone and the outskirts of the Kweiras air port, and the outskirts of the infantry college, meaning in direct contact with the regime,” the rebel commander, who declined to be identified, said.
The attack on al-Bab “started a few days ago when the Turkish military resumed air strikes on the area,” an observer said.
“Al-Bab is near the border of Syria and Turkey, and is one of the last remaining [ISIL] strongholds in that area,” he added.
Competing with the Kurdish militias
The YPG and allied groups have also tried to advance towards al-Bab in recent months from their two enclaves to the west and east but remain about 20 km away on each side.
“It is strategically important because Turkey needs to take this area if they want to reclaim all territory east of the Euphrates River, which was their goal when they first launched Operation Euphrates Shield,” the observer added.
The Turkish army said shelling “neutralised” 10 Kurdish YPG fighters in the past 24 hours as they tried to seize control of the Tal Jijan area, in the eastern countryside of Aleppo province.
If the Turkish military and its allied rebel forces manage to take al-Bab, they will be well-positioned to move on Raqqa too.
“Turkey did not want the YPG to take more control of land [in Syria], which is why their military got involved [in Syria] in the first place”.
“After taking al-Bab, which [the Turkish military] hopes is not that far away, they will take on Raqqa. But Raqqa is much more complicated because of the formation of forces in and around Raqqa. There are many sides there, not just the SDF, but the FSA, and others,”
Turkey operations started on August 24 alongside allied rebel forces who have managed to retake the ISIS stronghold of Jarabulus, alongside with al-Rai to the west and Dabiq city.
Turkey also attacked the Kurdish militias ordering them to withdraw from East Euphrates region. Many clashes erupted between the two alliances and recently Turkey said it will force Kurdish militias out of Manbij.
Syrian rebels were able to retrieve Jarablus town from ISIS and opened a new front to the west of al-Rai village, putting more pressure on ISIS militants from the both sides and securing the Syrian-Turkish border from the militants’ presence.
Syrian rebels retrieve Dabiq town also from ISIS, paving the way to attack al-Bab city near Aleppo.
The rebels have since extended those gains and now control an area of roughly 1,270 square km (490 square miles) in northern Syria.
The Turkish military also shelled Kurdish militias’ positions northern Syria while the rebel forces clashed with them in many incidents.
Turkey sees the PYD and their armed wing YPG as an extension of Kurdish PKK militants who have waged a three-decade insurgency in southeastern Turkey.
Turkey fears the YPG will try to connect three de facto autonomous Kurdish cantons that have emerged during the five-year war to create a Kurdish-run enclave in northern Syria, stoking the separatist ambitions of Kurds on its own soil.