A possible reason for the current conciliatory tone of the Turkish government towards Russia, and for Turkey’s willingness to participate in the Russian plan for a peace conference in the Kazakh capital Astana to be co-sponsored by Russia and Turkey, is that the Turkish army’s incursion into north east Syria (“Operation Euphrates Shield”) does not seem to be going well.
Not only is the Turkish army in north east Syria struggling against the Kurdish militia the YPG, but reports suggest that the Turkish has suffered a bruising defeat at the hands of ISIS during a bruising battle for the town of Al-Bab.
Al-Bab is strategically important. Its capture by the Turkish army would bring the Turkish army within long range artillery range of Aleppo, and it would also open the way for the Turkish military to attack more Kurdish controlled areas, such as the town of Manjib.
It is ISIS however which is in actual possession of Al-Bab, and in contrast to Jarablus, which is on the Turkish border and from which ISIS withdrew at the start of Euphrates Shield in August without firing a shot, ISIS is unwilling to withdraw from Al-Bab without a fight.
Turkish President Erdogan made it clear recently that the Turkish army has been ordered to capture Al-Bab, and reports over the last week have spoken of the Turkish military and its Jihadi allies trying to storm the town.
Capturing Al-Bab however presents for the Turkish military a number of problems.
Al-Bab is located beyond the range of Turkish long range artillery based in Turkey, whilst there are rumours the Russian and Syrian militaries have warned Turkey not to deploy its air force there. The result is that the Turkish army and its Jihadi allies lack artillery and air support when fighting ISIS for the town. Against an adversary as resourceful as ISIS this entails risks, and it seems that in a bruising encounter with ISIS near Al-Bab the Turkish army lost 2 German Leopard tanks and (according to ISIS) 70 men killed. News of the ISIS victory has been provided by ISIS’s Armaq News Agency, which has confirmed its story by releasing a photograph the clearly shows one of the captured Leopard tanks.
ISIS is in fact on a roll at the moment. Not only has it now inflicted what by all appearances looks like a severe setback on the Turks, but it has recently recaptured Palmyra, and – as The Duran was the first to report – it has brought the US led Iraqi offensive against Mosul to a halt. Whilst these are likely to prove ephemeral victories, especially if following Trump’s inauguration the US and Russia join together to fight it, they show that the organisation is still a force to be reckoned with.
Meanwhile ISIS has celebrated its victory against the Turkish army in characteristic fashion by releasing a video of it burning two captured Turkish soldiers alive.
As for Turkey, President Erdogan faces a series of unpalatable choices. Either he doubles down on his Syrian adventure, sending Turkish infantry (made up mainly of conscripts) and Turkish artillery into Syria – accepting the risk of Turkey getting sucked in – or he looks for a face-saving way out, which inevitably means coming to sort of terms with the Iranians and the Russians.
His policy at the moment however seems to be try to do both at the same time even though doing both is actually contradictory.
The future of Syria, and to an even greater extent the future of Turkey, depends on what he does next.