Regime advance against Islamic State in northeast Aleppo confounds Turkish ambitions

AMMAN: Syrian Arab Army (SAA) forces captured a handful of villages in the northeast Aleppo countryside on Monday as part of a unilateral advance against the Islamic State that is complicating a similar offensive by Turkish-backed rebels in the same area. 

The ongoing regime advance is coming from the south and southeast of al-Bab, a former Islamic State stronghold 30km south of the Turkish border that was captured by Ankara-backed Syrian rebels last Thursday after more than three months of fighting.

Since mid-January, the Syrian Arab Army’s Tiger Forces had battled northwards from regime territory near Aleppo city to just outside Tadef, a town 3km south of al-Bab, where the advance halted last week.

Then, the SAA began pushing east. Since late last week, regime forces cut through a channel of Islamic State-held territory in northeast Aleppo province.

On Monday, the SAA reached the edge of a swathe of territory there controlled by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

By slicing through IS territory southeast of al-Bab and linking its territory with that of the SDF, the SAA effectively prevented Turkish-backed rebel forces from pushing southwards.

The advance continued on Tuesday, with SAA forces capturing half a dozen villages in the same area. Regime forces also reportedly clashed with Turkish-backed rebels at several positions in the northeastern Aleppo countryside on Tuesday.

“The regime aims to cut off the road in front of Euphrates Shield and prevent it from advancing southwards,” Abdelsalam Najjar, the general commander of a Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigade fighting in the area told Syria Direct on Tuesday. Another rebel commander described the SAA push in similar terms.

Any future southwards push by the Syrian rebels fighting within Euphrates Shield—an offensive launched last August by Ankara to push Islamic State and Kurdish forces away from the Turkish border with Syria—would likely be towards the IS-held cities of Tabqa and a-Raqqa.

Turkey has previously indicated its interest in participating in future battles for Raqqa, an ambition complicated by the fact that the forces currently fighting IS near the city belong to the SDF, which Ankara considers an enemy.

The SDF, which is backed by the United States, is dominated by Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish political party with ties to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), an organization based in Turkey that has waged a violent internal struggle there for decades.

As a result, the SDF—which also includes Arab, Assyrian and other groups—remains at odds with Turkey and the rebels it supports in Syria. Because the SDF rarely clashes with regime forces, opponents accuse it of working with the Syrian regime.

Turkish state media agency Anadolu published an infographic on Tuesday alleging the regime advance was in support of IS. “Regime starts protecting Daesh with buffer zone,” read the infographic, which also alleged collusion between the “PKK/PYD” and Assad in Manbij.

The latest advance has done little for the perception that the Kurdish-dominated forces are colluding with the regime. FSA commander Najjar referred to the SDF as the YPG and called the Kurdish forces “one and the same” with the regime.

The territory that the SAA linked up with, which includes the city of Manbij, is controlled by the SDF’s Manbij Military Council. Established last April during the battle to capture the city from IS, the council includes Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and other groups.    

“The latest regime advance has cut the road for Euphrates Shield,” Rafi, a military commander with the SDF currently in the northeast Aleppo city of Manbij, told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “Of course Turkey and Euphrates Shield are desperate to advance towards Raqqa, but we will not give them the chance.”

For its part, the Syrian regime has not directly commented on the goals of the offensive through its state media outlets. On Sunday, the General Command of the Army and Armed Forces did announce the capture of Tadef, which it said “reinforces control over transportation routes and forms an important starting point” for operations against the Islamic State, SANA reported.

The battle for Raqqa, however significant, is still in the distance. A perhaps more immediate payoff is the possibility of a trade route between the Kurdish-held northeastern territories and regime-held areas.

By linking territory with the SDF in northeast Aleppo, the SAA advance could allow for the more direct transport of oil and other goods between the territories. That trade could benefit both regime areas and those held by the Kurdish-dominated SDF.

“The regime is our enemy,” Serdar Mahmoud, a Kurdish war reporter with the SDF in Manbij told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “But if the road were open, this would serve people, facilitate their movements and passage.”

 Euph. Shield fighters in newly captured Islamic State territory on Monday. Photo courtesy of Sultan Murad Division.

The SDF is currently fighting its own independent offensive in northeast Aleppo. The multiethnic forces are currently battling with IS to capture Khafsah, a village near the Euphrates river and the site of the main water pumping station that supplies water to Aleppo city.

The SDF reportedly captured at least two villages from IS further north in separate battles on Tuesday.

“We are trying to expand the areas we control and liberate all the villages administratively belonging to Manbij,” said reporter Mahmoud. A secondary goal is to put more pressure on Islamic State forces in Tabqa, he added.

Manbij in the crosshairs

Syrian rebels and their Turkish backers both say that SDF-held Manbij, 40km northeast of al-Bab, is the next target of the Euphrates Shield offensive.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated in a press conference in Istanbul on Tuesday that Manbij was the goal of the operations, adding that “Turkey does not plan to remain in Syria” following the conclusion of the Euphrates Shield offensive.

On Monday, Turkish state media reported 22 armored personnel carriers and an unspecified number of soldiers were headed to the country for use in the Euphrates Shield operations, citing an unnamed military source.

Turkish-backed rebels reportedly clashed with SDF forces at the frontlines they share several kilometers from Manbij on Tuesday.

Whether a major offensive for Manbij materializes likely depends on the position of the United States, which backs the SDF.

“US Special Forces do continue their advise, assist and accompany mission with the Syrian Democratic Forces across northern Syria,” Colonel Joseph Scrocca, the US-led Coalition’s Public Affairs Director told pro-opposition ARA News last week.

There were unconfirmed reports on Tuesday that American forces had been stationed at the frontline between Euphrates Shield forces and SDF-held territories, seven kilometers north of Manbij. Pictures of armored vehicles carrying an American flag circulated online.

SDF war reporter Serdar Mahmoud supported the claim, telling Syria Direct on Tuesday that American forces were positioned near the Sajur River, north of Manbij “to protect it from an advance by Euphrates Shield forces.” Syria Direct could not verify his account.

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.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He mvoed to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

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.