A week after Turkish President Erdogan declared victory for the Turkish army in its fight with ISIS for the strategically important town of Al-Bab in northern Syria, it has been confirmed that ISIS has driven back the Turkish troops besieged the city, inflicting on them heavy losses.
It seems that the Turkish troops and their ‘Free Syrian Army’ allies have lost all the territorial gains in and around Al-Bab that they had made, and which caused President Erdogan to make his triumphant victory declaration of a week ago.
The Turkish force that is besieging Al-Bab is comparatively small. It is also unbalanced, with barely any Turkish infantry to support the tanks, and with such Turkish infantry as is there consisting mainly of Special Forces, who are few in number and who are not generally used to support tanks.
The reason for this is that for domestic political reasons President Erdogan’s government is unwilling to send Turkish infantry into Syria. Turkish infantry units are generally manned by conscripts, and President Erdogan does not want to face the public opposition he might provoke if he sent young Turkish conscripts to Syria to fight the hardened veterans of ISIS and the Kurdish YPG.
The result however is that the Turkish military besieging Al-Bab has to rely for infantry support on the Jihadi fighters of the so-called ‘Free Syrian Army’, who have proved consistently unable to stand up in a fight against any one of their enemies, be they the Syrian army, ISIS or the YPG.
Many of them probably secretly sympathise with ISIS, and it is by no means impossible that they have been leaking out information about Turkish plans to ISIS, which may also in part explain why the Turkish plans are going awry.
President Erdogan’s obsession with Al-Bab is easy to understand.
Al-Bab is within striking distance of Aleppo, and its capture by the Turkish military and its ‘Free Syrian army’ allies would put them in a position from which they could theoretically threaten Syria’s largest city, something which would give them significant leverage in the negotiations in Astana. It would also give Erdogan a credible option for renewing the war against the Syrian government if the negotiations in Astana were to break down.
Capturing Al-Bab would also put the Turkish army in a position where it could sever the two regions in northern Syria which are controlled by the YPG, something which given Turkish hostility to the YPG it seems is for President Erdogan a priority.
Capturing Al-Bab would also round off the Turkish controlled ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria, which Erdogan is trying to carve out for the Jihadi fighters he supports in northern Syria. He needs to do this in order to show that these Jihadi fighters he supports actually control Syrian territory so as to strengthen their position in the negotiations in Astana. That way he hopes to give himself some leverage to shape the outcome of the eventual political settlement of the war in Syria, which is being negotiated in Astana.
It is becoming increasingly clear however that Erdogan seriously underestimated ISIS’s determination to hold on to Al-Bab.
Possibly he was misled by the withdrawal of ISIS fighters from Jarablus, which his forces occupied back in August. It is widely believed that some sort of deal was done between Turkish intelligence and ISIS for ISIS to withdraw from Jarablus before the Turkish army occupied the town. Possibly Erdogan thought the same would happen in Al-Bab. Instead ISIS has defended Al-Bab ferociously, and it has become increasingly clear that the Turkish force sent to capture it, which initially lacked air support and which still has insufficient infantry, is not strong enough to take it.
As to why ISIS is defending Al-Bab, this is partly explained by its strategic importance and its location at the centre of ISIS’s communications network.
A further explanation however may be the change in ISIS tactics, which has become increasingly visible over the last few months.
Until recently ISIS operated in ‘hit and run’ fashion, unwilling to throw away the lives of its fighters in hopeless attacks or ‘last stands’. It is now however increasingly digging in and defending territory, be this in Mosul, Palmyra or Al-Bab. It is also refusing to strike deals, whether these be to withdraw from Mosul or from Al-Bab. It is also increasingly pressing on with seemingly hopeless attacks in places like Deir Ezzor, even if these cause it heavy losses.
This change of ISIS tactics may have various causes, for example the loss of many of ISIS’s best and most experienced commanders through death in battle. However, as I have discussed previously, ISIS’s leader, Ibrahim Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (‘the Caliph Ibrahim’) almost certainly intervened decisively in October to block a deal to abandon Mosul by local ISIS commanders there. Moreover he did so in ruthless fashion by ordering the mass execution of 58 ISIS commanders who had apparently been involved in negotiating the deal to abandon Mosul. Having seen what happened to their fellow commanders in Mosul, it is understandable if ISIS commanders are now afraid to make deals or order retreats elsewhere.
Regardless of what the reasons are for ISIS’s defence of Al-Bab, it seems to have taken President Erdogan by surprise, with his forces in Al-Bab unprepared for a degree of resistance they did not anticipate. Characteristically Erdogan’s response – and of those parts of the Turkish military which support him – is to retreat into denial, concealing Turkish defeats by claiming imaginary victories.
Privately Erdogan must however be both furious and increasingly worried. Almost certainly he is asking his American and Russian ‘friends’ for more help (CIA chief Mike Pompeo was recently in Turkey), and he seems to be currently making a pitch for help from the Gulf States, where ISIS gets much of its financing.
Whether Erdogan’s ‘friends’ are able to help him pull himself out of the hole in Syria he has dug himself into is another matter.