Days after confirmation was received that the ISIS fighters in Al-Bab have been surrounded by the Syrian army from the south and the Turkish army and its Jihadi allies (the so-called “Free Syrian army”) from the north, news reports confirm that pressure on the ISIS fighters in the town is growing.
The Al-Masdar news agency, which is usually highly reliable and which appears to get much of its information from sources within the Syrian army and from Hezbollah, reports that the Turkish military has captured from ISIS the Al-Shehabi Farms located at the northern flank of Al-Bab.
This has provoked a typically triumphant ‘victory’ declaration from Turkish President Erdogan
Our forces and the Syrian Free Army have entered Al Bab… Now Islamic State [IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL] militants are leaving Al Bab
This boasting is premature and could come back to haunt President Erdogan. It is clear that the town is still under ISIS control, and that ISIS has not abandoned it. Many days and probably weeks of intense fighting lie ahead before ISIS is finally defeated in the town.
The Turkish advance on Al-Bab mirrors a Syrian army advance on Al-Bab from the south. Nothing illustrates better the overcomplicated chess that the Syrian conflict has become than the fact that though the Turks and the Syrians are enemies – and the Jihadi fighters fighting alongside the Turkish troops to take Al-Bab are the Syrian government’s sworn enemies – the Russian air force is providing air support for both. The Russian air strike which mistakenly killed three Turkish soldiers a few days ago appears to have been carried out in support of the Turkish army’s attack on Al-Bab.
Erdogan’s announcement shows that he remains fully committed to taking Al-Bab and to bringing it under Turkish control as part of the ‘safe zone’ he is intent on creating in Syria for his Jihadi allies. Obviously that is not the Syrian government’s wish, and it seems that there is indeed now a ‘race’ for Al-Bab between the Syrians and the Turks underway.
There is a very real risk that when the Turkish and Syrian armies finally encounter each other – as they will shortly – they could come to blows. The Russians will have to draw on every trick in the diplomatic book to prevent that happening.