Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that the Syrian rebels are close to taking back al-Bab city from ISIS, in what will be a new victory for the Euphrates shield operation, while the Kurdish militias said they will from the northern town of Manbij and move them east of the River Euphrates.
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.
“The Free Syrian Army (rebels), with the support of our special forces, is about two kilometers away and the siege is continuing as planned,” Erdogan told a news conference in Ankara before departing on an official visit to Pakistan.
“There is resistance now, but I don’t think it will last much longer,” he said.
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.
Turkey fears the Kurdish militias 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.
“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.
Kurdish militias to withdraw from Manbij
Erdogan also said he was confident that the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia would withdraw east of the Euphrates River from the city of Manbij on Wednesday or Thursday, fulfilling a long-standing Turkish demand.
The YPG said it was pulling out of Manbij and withdrawing east of the Euphrates, but was doing so in order to participate in the campaign to liberate the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, which is likely to further antagonize Turkey.
U.S. special envoy Brett McGurk described the move as a “milestone”, saying on Twitter that all YPG units would depart Manbij after training local units to maintain the city’s security against Islamic State.
The Kurdish militias have previously 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,” an observer added.
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,”
Kurdish militias or ISIS ?
The autonomous federation being planned by Syrian Kurdish parties and their allies is taking shape fast: a constitution should be finalized soon, to be followed quickly by-elections, a Kurdish official said.
The political federation for northern Syria builds on three self-ruled regions carved out by the YPG since Syria descended into conflict in 2011 in an uprising to topple President Bashar al-Assad. It has already grown, expanding last year to include the town of Tel Abyad that was captured from Islamic State by the YPG last year.
In fact, Kurdish militias use US support to launch offensives against new areas under the term of fighting ISIS, while the force the Arab citizens to flee their homes, so the Kurdish militias can force control over new areas and add it to their cantons.
They are accused of making ethnic crimes against Arab citizens in northern Syria, and an organized displacement plan pf the original residents to make their goals in separating the area from Syria easier to achieve.
Syrian Kurdish groups have made no secret of their aim to link up their two autonomous regions, or cantons, in northeastern Syria with one further west – Afrin. Their dreams were threatened after Turkey backed Syrian rebels retrieves the 80 km stretch of territory at the Turkish border near Manbij from ISIS and ordered the Kurdish militias to leave the area.
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.
However, the plan still has danger as the Syria Democratic Forces alliance, which is spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, still have the support of US administration and mounted with its help a new advance towards ISIS last stronghold in Syria, Raqqa.