Turkish-backed FSA rebels set their sights on last IS Aleppo stronghold after border victory

AMMAN: One day after Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army rebels drove Islamic State fighters from the last villages they held along the border in northern Aleppo province, three rebel sources from participating factions tell Syria Direct that their next step is to advance southwards towards al-Bab, “even if Ankara doesn’t participate.”

Two weeks ago, FSA rebels supported by Turkish tanks, special forces and warplanes crossed into northern Syria from Turkey and captured the IS-held border city of Jarablus in a matter of hours.

The operation, dubbed Euphrates Shield, marked Turkey’s largest incursion into Syria since the war began, and had two stated objectives: limit the territorial ambitions of Kurdish-led, US-backed forces to expand along the border from their territory in Syria’s northeast, and clear IS from its positions south of Turkey’s border.

The Turkish-backed forces achieved the first objective capturing territory south of Jarablus held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), limiting their expansion in the area. The southward drive stopped at the Sajur river, 12km north of Manbij.

To accomplish the second objective, Turkish tanks rolled into Syria for a second time on Saturday, 55km west of Jarablus, to help local FSA rebel groups recapture the border town of a-Rai from the Islamic State.

 A rebel map of northern Aleppo on Sunday shows recently-taken territory in blue, while yellow arrows indicate the distance from FSA territory to al-Bab and Manbij—20 and 12km, respectively. Photo courtesy of al-Jabha a-Shamiya.

Turkish airstrikes subsequently supported the FSA rebels as they moved eastward, capturing villages along the border from the Islamic State before meeting up with the rebel contingent fighting IS west of Jarablus.

The question now is what happens next. Turkey has not made any official statements laying that out. But for rebels from three factions that participated in the battles who spoke to Syria Direct on Monday, the answer is clear: the IS-held north Aleppo city of al-Bab.

“We will head towards al-Bab to liberate it,” Mahmoud Abu Hamzah, the commander of Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin, a mostly Syrian Kurdish FSA group participating in the north Aleppo battles.

Al-Bab, 23km south of a-Rai, has been under IS control since late 2013. It is last major holding in Aleppo province. The city is more heavily fortified and well-manned than Jarablus or any of the other villages along the Turkish border that FSA rebels have taken so far during the two-week campaign.

The north Aleppo rebels have momentum, for now, but if Turkish air support for their battles were cut, it is not clear that they would be able to capture al-Bab.

 Turkish-backed FSA rebels coming from Jarablus joined their counterparts coming from a-Rai on Sunday evening after driving IS from Turkey’s southern border. Photo courtesy of Hamzah Division.

On their own, rebels struggled to take and hold the border town a-Rai from IS, capturing and subsequently losing it twice in April and June and once in August before Turkish support helped them retake it on Saturday.

Captain Abdelsalam Abdelrazaq, the military spokesman for Nour e-Din a-Zinki, emphasized the importance of Turkish support to his fighters’ recent advances in northern Aleppo.

“We benefit from Turkish cover, especially from the air, and from [their] technical equipment,” he told Syria Direct on Monday. “Especially in opening gaps in enemy defenses and fortifications, as we do not have any materiel for this offensive task.”

While vital Turkish support for north Aleppo rebels continues for now, “we do not have any information about whether Turkish forces intend to advance with us towards al-Bab or Manbij,” a media source with the Syrian rebel al-Jabha a-Shamiya told Syria Direct on Monday, requesting anonymity. “This is a Turkish matter; we have not been informed of anything.”

“We are there to protect our border,” Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in a televised speech on Sunday, “to provide safety of life and property for our citizens and to ensure Syria’s integrity.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters in China that “it is our wish that a terror corridor not be formed across our southern border.”

Sunday’s rebel victory against IS appears to accomplish that goal. The Islamic State no longer holds territory on Turkey’s southern border with Syria. What is less clear is how deep into Syria the 90km, FSA-held buffer zone that Ankara has now created along the border, west of the Euphrates River, will extend.

A map of the territory captured over the weekend, published by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency, indicated that the “security zone [is] expected to be enlarged.”

“The Euphrates Shield operation is not over,” Captain Abdelsalam Abdelrazaq, the military spokesman for Nour e-Din a-Zinki told Syria Direct on Monday. “Reaching the city of al-Bab and liberating it would mean the entire northeast Aleppo countryside would be free of all of the terrorist organizations.”

The Turkish-backed rebels are not the only factions seeking to capture al-Bab. While FSA fighters currently hold positions 20km north of the IS-held city, the Kurdish-led SDF—at odds with Turkey—hold positions roughly the same distance to the east, near Manbij. The SDF declared their intent to capture the city earlier this year. 

“When we liberated Jarablus, we came within 12km of Manbij before the Pentagon prevented us from advancing further,” said Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin’s Abu Hamzah. “We will advance to al-Bab, because it is a Syrian city.”

“These are our villages and cities, even if Ankara doesn’t participate with us.”

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved 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.

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.

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.