‘It’s game over’: Turkish-backed rebels 2km away from Islamic State stronghold of al-Bab

AMMAN: Turkish-backed Syrian rebels are battling Islamic State fighters and meeting “fierce resistance” two kilometers from the self-proclaimed caliphate’s last major stronghold in Aleppo province on Monday, the second day of a renewed push to capture al-Bab with the support of Ankara’s artillery and warplanes.

“The battle has begun in earnest,” Mahmoud Abu Hamzah, the commander of Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin, a Kurdish Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigade participating in the campaign told Syria Direct on Monday.

Al-Bab, located 30km south of Turkey’s southern border with Syria, is the Islamic State’s last major holding in northeast Aleppo province.

The well-fortified city is the latest objective of Turkish-backed rebels currently fighting within Operation Euphrates Shield, a campaign launched by Turkey in late August to battle not only the Islamic State but also US-backed Kurdish forces, in northern Syria.

Over the past 12 weeks, Syrian rebels and their Turkish backers have reportedly cleared IS from “almost 1,600 square kilometers” of land, Ankara’s Anadolu Agency reported on Monday.

“We have entered the outskirts of al-Bab city,” said Abu Hamzah, after a “very swift advance” with the “heavy” support of Turkish artillery, armored vehicles and warplanes.

 Syrian rebels in north Aleppo on November 10. Photo courtesy of Euphrates Shield.

Fighting is currently concentrated at a livestock market north of al-Bab. The commander said that more than two dozen Islamic State (IS) fighters were killed there in the battles.

“We are meeting fierce resistance,” he added. Islamic State fighters “are battling with everything they have.”

At least nine FSA fighters have been killed and 52 others injured in recent days, Turkey’s Anadolu Agency reported on Monday, citing a statement by the Turkish Armed Forces. Four Turkish soldiers have also been wounded.

Syrian rebels began the fresh attack to capture al-Bab early Sunday morning. Pushing southward from their territory in northeastern Aleppo province, FSA fighters have now advanced roughly nine kilometers towards al-Bab, leaving them 2km from the city. In the process, they captured seven villages and towns, according to the official Euphrates Shield account on Twitter.

FSA fighters and their Turkish backers are not the only ones with eyes on al-Bab. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—which Turkey accuses of links to the PKK—declared their intent to capture the city earlier this year.

Following advances by Kurdish-led forces towards al-Bab from territory they hold west of the city in recent weeks, “Turkish Armed Forces and the Free Syrian Army accelerated operations,” Anadolu reported on Sunday. After the latest FSA advance, it appears virtually impossible for the SDF to move in from the west and take the city.

Now, FSA fighters are in position not only to storm al-Bab, Abu Hamzah told Syria Direct, but also to capture Qabaseen, a Kurdish-majority town roughly seven kilometers to the northeast.

 Turkish-backed forces were 2km northwest of al-Bab on Sunday. Map courtesy of Anadolu Agency.

In the latest advance over the weekend, rebels recaptured Jabal a-Deir, an elevated area that overlooks both Qabaseen and al-Bab, said Abu Hamzah. The elevated position allowed rebels to “fire cut the supply route between the two towns,” he added.

“It’s game over,” added the commander. “With the fall of al-Bab and Qabaseen, the two largest remaining cities IS holds in Aleppo, their presence will be virtually over.”

There were conflicting reports on Sunday regarding the United States-led international coalition’s role in the latest fighting in northeast Aleppo province.

FSA commander Abu Hamzah told Syria Direct that rebels “provided coordinates of IS positions to the coalition,” which he says were then struck. IS-affiliated media agency Amaq reported on Sunday that “three American air raids targeted the outskirts of al-Bab.”

The coalition did not report airstrikes in Aleppo on Sunday. Turkey’s Anadolu Agency on Monday reported that “no aircraft from the international anti-Daesh [IS] coalition were involved” in the latest fighting.

Turkish airstrikes reportedly struck “15 Daesh terrorist targets,” the Anadolu Agency reported on Monday, referring to the Islamic State’s Arabic acronym.

Aerial and ground bombardment of al-Bab by Turkish and FSA forces continued on Monday. A video published by IS media outlet Amaq the day before, purportedly of the aftermath of Turkish shelling, includes a clip of injured adults and a child in a hospital.

With FSA and Turkish forces 2km north of al-Bab, Amaq claimed on Monday that Ankara’s tanks were “indiscriminately bombarding residential areas” of 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. Follow Waleed on Twitter: @walid_ALnofal.

Mateo Nelson

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