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Turkey Faces Long and Difficult Fight Against Isis in Syria
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The Turkish army is suffering unexpectedly serious losses in men and equipment as it engages in its first real battle against Isis fighters holding al-Bab, a small but strategically placed city north east of Aleppo. Turkish military commanders had hoped to capture al-Bab quickly when their forces attacked it in December, but they are failing to break through Isis defences.

At least 47 Turkish soldiers have killed and eleven tanks disabled or destroyed according to the Turkish military expert Metin Gurcan writing in al-Monitor. Isis have posted a video showing a Turkish tank being destroyed, apparently by an anti-tank rocket and Isis fighters looking at the wreckage of other armoured vehicles.

The Turkish military intervention in northern Syria, known as Operation Euphrates Shield, which began on 24 August last year has also led to heavy civilian casualties. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing local witnesses, says that 352 civilians including 77 children and 48 women have been killed by Turkish artillery bombardments and air strikes over the last five months. Drone footage taken by Isis shows that the buildings in al-Bab, that once had a population of 100,000, have been devastated.

Turkey had intended to make a limited military foray into the territory between the Turkish frontier and Aleppo city 40 miles further south which would make it a serious player in the Syrian conflict. It would drive Isis from its last big stronghold in northern Syria at al-Bab and, above all, prevent the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from linking up their enclaves at Kobani and Qamishli with one at Afrin, north west of Aleppo.

The strategy has proven far more costly and slower to implement in the face of determined and skilful Isis resistance than Ankara had foreseen. It wanted primarily to rely on Arab and Turkman militiamen under Turkish operational control, though these would be nominally part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) umbrella group. These proxies would be backed up by Turkish artillery, air strikes and a limited number of Turkish ground troops.

The plan seemed to work in the beginning as the Turkish forces took over the Isis-held town of Jarablus, where the Euphrates River crosses the Turkish border. But swift success here came because Isis did not fight, its men retreating or shaving off their beards and melting into the local population. But when the Turkish-backed FSA advance failed to break through Isis lines in and around al-Bab, Turkey had to reinforce them with its own units which now do the bulk of the fighting.


Turkish leaders blamed their problems partly on the US which has failed to make more than a few air strikes in support of the al-Bab offensive. The US does not want to aid militarily a Turkish intervention aimed primarily at the YPG, who have proved the most effective US ally against Isis in Syria. The YPG has at least 25,000 battle-tested ground troops who are backed up by the massive firepower of the US-led air coalition. Ankara is hoping that the new Trump administration will be less cooperative with the Kurds and more so with Turkey.

Isis is using an effective cocktail of tactics similar to those which it employed to slow down the offensive of the Iraqi security forces in east Mosul which took them three months to capture. These tactics include frequent use of suicide bombers driving vehicles packed with explosives (VBIEDs),often especially armoured in Isis workshops so they are difficult to stop.

“Isis uses VBIEDs to disrupt its enemies’ field planning, organisation and morale,” says Mr Gurcan. “With tunnels, Isis maintains mobility, despite air attacks.” As in Mosul, Isis is able to move small mobile units containing snipers, specialists using ant-tank missiles and suicide bombers from house to house without exposing them to superior enemy fire power. The Turkish forces have been unable to encircle al-Bab and cut the main supply route to Raqqa, the de facto capital of Isis in Syria.

Turkey benefited at this week’s peace talks in Astana in Kazakhstan from being one of three foreign powers – the others being Russia and Iran – with ground troops in Syria. It had previously provided crucial aid, sanctuary and a near open border to the Syrian armed opposition. Reinforced by a diplomatic marriages of convenience with both Russia and Iran, Turkey has acquired significant influence over the outcome of the six-year long war in Syria. But the slow military progress at al-Bab shows Turkey’s growing military engagement in Syria is coming at a price – even in its initial phases.

The fighting in and around al-Bab underlines an important weakness of the plans announced at Astana to bolster the current shaky Syrian ceasefire announced on 30 December. The two most powerful rebel military movements, Isis and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, are not included in the ceasefire and have no reason to abide by its terms. On the contrary, Nusra has launched an offensive in west Aleppo province to eliminate rebel groups sympathetic to peace talks and a ceasefire.

Significantly, Isis is showing that, despite claims by the Iraqi and Syrian governments that it is facing imminent defeat, it is still capable of fighting on multiple fronts. It holds west Mosul in Iraq with a population of 750,000, recaptured Palmyra in Syria in mid-December and has repeatedly attacked the Syrian government enclave in the provincial capital of Deir Ezzor over the last ten days. The Russian air force was compelled to launch intense air strikes to help the Syrian army hold the city.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Syria, Turkey 
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  1. Before the coup attempt, Turkey’s generals seem to have restrained Erdogan from getting too deep into Turkey, but a month after it failed, Erdogan sent the army in although using the Dance of the Seven Veils, the FSA, as cover. It is turning into the latest Turkish state miscalculation in Syria – one of a long series.
    Still, if it goes bad, and it is definitely starting to – I am sure he will blame Fethullah Gulen.

  2. The Scalpel says: • Website

    Ironically, ISIS is probably assaulting Turkish troops with many weapons that passed through Turkey on the way to Syria.

  3. virgile says:

    I won’t be surprised if Syrian intelligence is passing information about Turkey to ISIS as Syria wants to bleed the Turkish army as much as possible.
    Erdogan has a dilemma. Turkey is a Sunni country and is now killing other Sunnis and worse it is asking Christian countries ( Russia, the USA, the EU) for help. During the coup Erdogan was saved by Sunni Mosques. The Sunni Mosques tolerates that the army fights Kurds but they are very uncomfortable with the Turkish army cracking down and killing other Sunnis, whether they are extremists or not.
    If Erdogan appears too tough against Sunnis fighters ( Al Nusra, ISIS) he may loose the votes of the mosques in the planned referendum. That may explain the slowness of the fights in Al Bab.
    Erdogan wants the “yes” to the referendum first then he will increase the fight in Al Bab. Yet time is running out as more Turkish soldiers are been killed and the adventure in Syria taking its toll in the public opinion despite the facf that the Turkish media is under control by the government.
    2017 may see the fall of Erdogan as he will have to resign if the referendum fails.

    • Replies: @Uebersetzer
  4. @virgile

    As No.2 indicates, the Turkish armed forces and allies may well be getting hit with weapons they sent to IS in the first place. The Syrian conflict is full of such ironies.
    I don’t think the slow progress at Al Bab is by design. Erdogan made a TV speech in December in which he claimed it was about to fall. And if he is worried about mosque reaction, why attack Al Bab at all? But there is a Sunni backlash – the shooting of Karlov was really a warning to Erdogan in my view, as well as retaliation against Russia for the jihadis losing Aleppo.
    Erdogan won’t lose the referendum – many of the TV stations and other media that would call for “No” have been closed down and the CHP is already complaining that the “Yes” side has an overwhelming advantage in the media. The state of emergency is still in force and there are no indications that it is going to be lifted during the referendum campaign, though how you hold a meaningful referendum in a country under a state of emergency in which media and other institutions can be closed down at the stroke of a pen is another matter. In the last resort the AKP will simply stuff the ballot boxes.
    I think the Syrian government has other more likely ways of getting some retaliation in on the Turkish state than passing info to IS. It could for example assist the PKK, it could seek to manipulate existing discontent among Alevis in Turkey etc.

  5. jsinton says:

    It’s like I always said from the start of the Syrian Civil war: If I were a cynical CIA type, I would imagine that the Syrian conflict is the perfect CIA black op. By just pouring a little gasoline on the fire, you get all your enemies together fighting each other to destroy a country deemed for regime change.

    • Replies: @Uebersetzer
  6. @jsinton

    I don’t think it is the perfect black op – overall it seems to have boosted Russian influence in the region and reduced American clout. I am sure that wasn’t the intention, any more than Erdogan backing the “opposition” was aimed at destabilising his own country. But that is what happened in both cases.

  7. Anon • Disclaimer says:

    Turkey has long supported ISIS, as have the Saudis and Qatar.
    They have reaped the terror that they have sown.

  8. Armed attack in Istanbul district on CHP supporters campaigning for “no” in the referendum – one person wounded. The reality of Turkey is that even if the person or persons who carried out the attack are arrested, they will not be charged with terrorism.

  9. Hatay is close to the Syrian border and so especially sensitive, but the AKP and its police considering protests against the AKP to be terrorism is the behaviour pattern of a dictatorship.

  10. Cato says:

    First I’ve heard about the Turkish Army’s difficulty. Not what I would have expected. I remember childhood stories of the incredible performance of Turks in the Korean War. Several thoughts:
    * Why do they need the Americans to do the bombing? Turkey has an excellent airforce.
    * Have the purges of military officers hurt Turkish military effectiveness? There were two purges: one facilitated by the Gulenists, that eviscerated the secular officer corps; and the second, in the wake of the coup, of Gulenists. The first purge was probably more damaging, since Gulenist officers were beneficiaries of exam cheating, and of lower calibre than old-line secular officers.
    * Are the Jihadis really that good? Perhaps ISIS has made standing up to Turkey a priority, and has allocated the best fighters to Al Bab? And who are these best fighters? They can’t all be Chechens.
    * Are Turkish soldiers demoralized? They are conscripts, and many might not be AK enthusiasts. And probably all Turks know that Erdogan’s son has become rich in the oil-for-weapons trade with ISIS. Hard to fight with enthusiasm when you know that your own government has supplied the enemy–the enemy could, after all, well become an ally tomorrow.

  11. * Turkish soldiers had a good reputation in the Korean War, but that was a war in which US troops broke and ran on several occasions, many POWs took part in propaganda broadcasts and General Ridgeway’s verdict on the South Korean troops was “every time the Chinamen hit them, they just plain run”. Against this background it was perhaps not so difficult for Turkish troops to distinguish themselves. More recently, though, leaving aside Cyprus 1974, Turkish soldiers have only been involved in counter-insurgency campaigns, mostly against Kurds who are not as well-armed as IS seems to be.
    * The putsch attempt aftermath has taken quite a toll of the air force – there are reports that at least two pilots bombing Al Bab are under arrest – technically they are not allowed to leave Turkey. They return from missions and are then put under guard. Other pilots and their commanders are in jail full stop.
    * Although the AKP denies it, the purges have affected the military effectiveness of Turkey quite clearly. Something like 40% of generals were either jailed or fired, and many lower-ranking officers as well. Quite a few officers working at NATO HQ in Belgium have claimed asylum.
    *The jihadis are pretty good or well-equipped. They have repeatedly shown film of knocked-out Turkish armour, including up-to-date stuff like the Leopard II. Whether they are elite IS, I don’t know.
    * Some Turkish soldiers sent to Al Bab were arrested after the coup, and may still be technically under arrest, and it is almost as though Al Bab is a sort of penal battalion assignment. Morale cannot be high. A significant part of Turkey’s population has some IS sympathies anyway, as I have mentioned in earlier posts. The de-secularising of Turkish society under Erdogan has had this effect. So fighting jihadis is difficult for them. Perhaps the keen secularists and Alevis among them might be more enthusiastic, but these are precisely the ones Erdogan targets for arrest.
    * The original plans seem to have been to rely on the FSA to do ground fighting while the Turkish armed forces provided back-up, but the FSA is worthless.
    There were reports in the Turkish media yesterday that IS has moved its HQ out of Al Bab and might withdraw. Even if true, this may have little to do with the Turkish armed forces – Syrian government troops are approaching Al Bab from the south and IS may not want to be the meat in the sandwich.

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