Turkey-backed rebels advance on al-Bab

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Rebel fighters of the Turkey-backed Sultan Murad Brigade entering Jarablus. File photo

ARA News

Erbil – Turkey-backed rebels swept through northern Aleppo Governorate on Sunday, reaching the periphery of al-Bab city. According to the Euphrates Shield Brigades, they are now only 2 km from the Islamic State (ISIS) stronghold.

“Turkey-backed forces are only 2 km away from […] al-Bab. Land mines and IEDs planted around al-Bab by Daesh terrorists have been defused,” the Euphrates Shield Brigades said, employing an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

Ali Özkök, a Turkish Middle East analyst, predicted that rebel forces would quickly overcome the city’s defenses. “The Turkish air force has been striking ISIS positions in al-Bab for weeks, in support of allied ground troops. Within two weeks al-Bab should fall,” he said.

“1,500 rebels plus special forces, 40 tanks and 15+ APCs are involved in the al-Bab operation,” Özkök added.

While a Turkish military victory is widely expected, the operation could heighten tensions between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Turkey-backed rebels. It could also strain relations between Damascus and Ankara. The Syrian government fears that the rebels could open up a new front, breaking the siege of eastern Aleppo.

Özkök sketched out several scenarios for Turkey and its allies after the fall of al-Bab. He told ARA News that once the city was secured, rebels could either attack the Kurdish-led SDF, ISIS-held Tabqa or advance south towards Raqqa and Til Rifaat.

“One thing is definite. The offensive will not stop in al-Bab or Manbij. [The Euphrates Shield Brigades] have started huge training programs. Erdogan speaks of a safe zone that reaches 5,000 km²,” Özkök told ARA News.

According to Michael Stephens, director of the Royal United Services Institute–Qatar, the battle for al-Bab could endanger the weeks-old Raqqa operation. The SDF’s leadership may determine that the immediate threat is in Aleppo and redeploy accordingly.

“Northern Aleppo has been a very serious area of contention, where it’s not clear what agreements have been made,” Stephens told ARA News. “There doesn’t appear to be a mechanism to stop the Kurds and Turks from fighting over it.”

“While al-Bab opens up options for Turkey, it shuts down options for the [Syrian Defense Forces] and puts the Raqqa operation in jeopardy,” Stephens added.

SDF spokesman Sharvan Darwish has accused Turkey-backed rebels of ethnically cleansing Kurdish and Arab villages around al-Bab. The Kurdish officer said that by depopulating the villages, Turkey had signaled that its “operation is ultimately aimed at preventing Syrian Kurds from uniting their canton administrations in Kobane and Afrin.”

Reporting by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg | Source: ARA News 

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