Kurdish-led coalition inches closer to contested al-Bab, prompting swift Turkish response

AMMAN: The race between Turkish-backed rebels and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to capture a key Islamic State-held city in north Aleppo heated up this week after the SDF made ground advances, prompting intense counter-attacks from Ankara-aligned forces.

Turkey launched what it calls Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria in late August with two stated goals: to clear the Islamic State from Turkey’s southern border with Syria and to limit Kurdish territorial ambitions in the same area. 

Over the past two months, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces waging the offensive—supported by the United States and backed by Turkish airpower, artillery and special forces—have driven IS from a 90km strip of territory along the border and captured the symbolically important town of Dabiq.

The next step in Euphrates Shield is to capture al-Bab, 30km south of Turkey’s southern border. The heavily fortified city is IS’s last major holding in Aleppo province, to which fighters fleeing losses in nearby Manbij and Jarablus have withdrawn in recent weeks.

Al-Bab is a prize coveted not only by the FSA fighters currently battling IS in north Aleppo with the support of Turkish airstrikes and artillery, but also by the Kurdish-led SDF. The SDF declared their intent to capture the city earlier this year.

 The north Aleppo countryside and the distance to Al-Bab on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Cizire Canton.

Turkish-backed FSA rebels currently hold positions 12km northwest of al-Bab, while the Kurdish-led SDF is 19km west of the IS-held city.

The SDF in northern Aleppo province consist primarily of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) but also include several Arab brigades, most prominently Jaish a-Thuwar, which led this week’s battles. The SDF is based out of Afrin canton, an isolated pocket of Kurdish-held territory in northwest Aleppo province on the border with Turkey.

On Wednesday, Jaish a-Thuwar reported that it, alongside a handful of other SDF-aligned groups, had taken their first steps eastward towards al-Bab by capturing a handful of villages and positions from the Islamic State in north Aleppo province.

Almost immediately afterwards, FSA rebels nearby attacked the newly captured positions, “with the support of Turkish warplanes,” Jaish a-Thuwar said in an online statement on Wednesday.

In the early hours of Thursday morning, Turkish warplanes “targeted Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) positions with 23 airstrikes in addition to targeting those areas with heavy artillery,” Mahmoud Abu Hamzah, the commander of the FSA’s Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin told Syria Direct on Thursday.

Abu Hamzah’s brigade is one of the Turkish-backed Syrian factions currently battling the Islamic State in the north Aleppo countryside within Ankara’s Euphrates Shield offensive.

 Reported Turkish shelling in Kurdish-held northwest Aleppo province on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of the Defense Body in Afrin Canton.

The FSA brigades allied with the Turks are battling to push back the SDF advance because “these positions are not permissible for them to advance towards,” rebel commander Abu Hamzah told Syria Direct on Thursday. “There were clashes and an exchange of gunfire and shelling.”

Arab Abu Ismail, a field commander in the FSA’s Sultan Murad Division, also in northern Aleppo, told pro-opposition Halab Today on Thursday that he sees “no difference between the SDF” and the Islamic State.

“Any village [the SDF] take control of, we will liberate,” added Abu Ismail. Tensions between mostly Arab FSA factions in northern Aleppo and Kurdish militias and their allies are longstanding. The conflict is built on past infighting and accusations of property seizures and destruction in addition to the displacement of Arab villagers at the hands of Kurdish-led forces, charges that the SDF denies.

For Turkey, the SDF is a threat because the Kurdish brigades that make up the bulk of its forces seek to link their territory along the border in eastern Syria with an isolated pocket of territory in northwest Aleppo, known as the Afrin canton.

The prospect of a contiguous, Kurdish-held swathe of territory along Turkey’s border troubles Ankara because the most powerful group in the area, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) is the armed wing of the PYD, a Syrian Kurdish party with ties to the PKK. The PKK is an internationally designated Kurdish terrorist group that has waged an internal war with Turkey for decades.

The official Euphrates Shield Twitter account tweeted on Thursday that “Turkish airstrikes hit PKK/PYD terrorist targets” in northwestern Syria, “killing nearly 200 terrorists.”

Statements by Jaish a-Thuwar, the SDF-aligned faction that led the coalition’s advance eastward this week, indicate that the battles did not include the YPG, the armed branch of the PYD. Rather, Arab components of the SDF made up the bulk of the forces. However, Turkish state media said that the strikes on Wednesday night and Thursday morning targeted Kurdish “terrorists” in Syria.  

On Wednesday, Turkish state news agency Anadolu reported that the “PYD/PKK” had launched an attack “on northern Syria’s al-Bab district” to link Kurdish-held territories.

Hours later, the SDF advanced, and Turkey and the FSA responded with bombardment and ground battles. While the fighting appeared to have calmed on Thursday afternoon, there were reports of sporadic ground bombardment targeting the SDF.

Turkish bombing after the SDF made gains against IS “is further proof that Turkey and IS are two faces of the same coin,” the Kurdish-led Self-Administration’s Defense Body in Afrin canton wrote in a Facebook post on Thursday. “Turkey is trying with all its might to hamper the victories of the SDF.”

FSA commander Abu Hamzah characterized the capture of al-Bab ahead of the SDF as non-negotiable.

“In the next 48 hours, we will make a large advance towards al-Bab,” FSA commander Abu Hamzah told Syria Direct on Thursday.  

“We won’t allow the SDF to advance towards it,” he added. “These areas belong to us.”

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.