Turkish news agencies are reporting that ISIS fighters have surrendered the strategically important town of Al-Bab in northern Syria to the Turkish military, which is now in full control of the town.
This follows a succession of see-sawing battles for the town, during which Turkish troops have often suffered heavy losses.
Turkish President Erdogan came close to declaring victory in Al-Bab two weeks ago. However a counter-attack by ISIS then drove the Turkish army and its ‘Free Syrian Army’ back, retaking all the territory they had captured. However yesterday the Turkish army itself counter-attacked and in an assault that apparently relied heavily on Turkish Special Forces the Turkish military is reported to have captured a quarter of the town.
This latest Turkish advance into the town appears to have set the scene for ISIS’s surrender today.
According to the Al-Masdar news agency, ISIS surrendered after reaching an agreement with the Turkish military for the safe withdrawal of its fighters from Al-Bab.
Around 5,000 ISIS fighters have been trapped in Al-Bab and at a time when ISIS is coming under pressure on all fronts the organisation is in no position to throw away the lives of so many of its fighters to hold on to a town that is hardly crucial to its survival. As I discussed previously, what was surprising was that ISIS kept so many of its fighters in Al-Bab for so long, allowing them to become trapped there.
I have previously speculated that this may reflect orders from ISIS’s leader Ibrahim Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi to his fighters to hold ground and fight to the last man after he quelled an attempt by some of his commanders to surrender Mosul to the Iraqi army. If so then the negotiated retreat of ISIS’s fighters from Al-Bab suggests that he has heeded the advice of his military commanders, and has realised that there is no point in throwing away the lives of his fighters by ordering them to fight on in Al-Bab, whose loss can in no way threaten the organisation’s existence.
For President Erdogan and the Turks negotiating an end to the fight for Al-Bab ends what was threatening to become a debacle and has finally delivered this strategically important town into their hands.
If ISIS’s negotiated surrender of Al-Bab makes sense for both ISIS and the Turks, it is nonetheless something of a missed opportunity.
Though the civilian losses might have been heavy in forcing the issue in the town, the fact remains that up to 5,000 ISIS fighters were trapped there, and their elimination would have seriously weakened the organisation, causing it to suffer its biggest defeat during the whole of the Syrian war. The agreement to let them withdraw means they will live to fight for ISIS another day, and somewhere else.