Contrary to Turkish optimism, an arduous battle against a ‘dug-in’ Islamic State in al-Bab

AMMAN: Turkish-backed Syrian rebels currently control 40 percent of the northern city of al-Bab, making slow progress in a week-long campaign against “dug-in” Islamic State forces, a rebel spokesman told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

Syrian opposition fighters, alongside Turkish soldiers, artillery and airstrikes, launched an attack to capture al-Bab one week ago. The city, located 30km south of the Turkish border with Syria, is the last major Islamic State (IS) holding in Aleppo province.

But the Islamic State is not giving up easily. Its fighters are “still dug-in inside al-Bab,” said Haithem Hamou, a spokesman for al-Jabha a-Shamiyah, one of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions fighting on the ground.

The Turkish-backed forces “control 40 percent” of the city, the spokesman said, adding that over the past week, the fighting has “never paused.”

Hamou’s description of grinding battles against a well-fortified enemy run contrary to separate statements made by Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier in the week that al-Bab was “largely taken under control” and that Islamic State fighters were “in the process of entirely leaving al-Bab.”

Ankara launched its Euphrates Shield offensive nearly six months ago to clear Islamic State forces from territories just south of the Turkish border with Syria. By supporting FSA forces with Turkish personnel, airstrikes and artillery to capture the area, the offensive also aims to limit Kurdish territorial expansion in the same area.

The Euphrates Shield attack on al-Bab initially focused on the city’s western outskirts. However, after breaking through IS defenses there last Wednesday and entering the city for the first time after weeks of fighting, the Turkish-backed forces “have not been able to advance into the city center,” said Hamou.

An activist in the same area described “slow progress” by Turkish-backed forces.

IS trenches, tunnels, IEDs, snipers and car bombs stymied the initial advance, driving Euphrates Shield fighters to change their approach.

“Now we are trying to advance from the north,” the rebel spokesman told Syria Direct on Wednesday, claiming that Euphrates Shield forces captured a roundabout there.

Separately, south of al-Bab, Syrian regime forces are continuing their own weeks-long drive towards the city, but their early progress, too, appears to have slowed at Tadef, an IS-held town less than three kilometers south of the city.

‘In ruins’

While Euphrates Shield troops fight to break through dense Islamic State fortifications and capture the remaining 60 percent of al-Bab, hundreds of Turkish airstrikes and shells are falling on the city amidst reports of civilian casualties.

On Wednesday, the Islamic State’s Amaq news agency reported that seven people were killed by Turkish airstrikes and shelling. The agency posted graphic videos and pictures in recent days showing pancaked buildings and the remains of people reportedly killed by the bombing.

  Smoke rises over al-Bab city on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Step Agency.

On Monday, local Facebook news page al-Bab al-Hadath reported that Turkish warplanes bombed a family home, killing 15 people inside. The same day, 20 airstrikes and 200 artillery shells hit the city, the page claimed. Syria Direct could not independently confirm the report.

The United States-led coalition conducted airstrikes in al-Bab in recent weeks, but its last reported raid was last Saturday. Coalition strike reports for Tuesday and Wednesday have not been released.

“We cannot confirm or deny what is happening inside the IS areas,” rebel spokesman Hamou told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “Our information is that al-Bab is essentially empty of civilians in both the areas we control and the IS areas.”

Some 30,000 civilian residents of al-Bab fled the bombing of the city and IS rule since December 2016, according to the United Nations. One displaced resident described a city “in ruins” to Syria Direct earlier this month.

It is not immediately clear how many civilians remain inside the city.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.