The battle for al-Bab intensifies: Turkish and Syrian forces come face to face and Russia mistakenly bombs Turkish troops
For a while now the ISIL held town of al-Bab in northern Syria has been incompletely besieged by Turkey and its rebel allies. According to the Turkish military, as of December 29, 2016 their operation against al-Bab has killed 391 ISIL militants1 and subsequently there have been further reports of substantial ISIL casualties, including high ranking emirs.2 The Turks themselves have sustained significant casualties, having 69 soldiers killed in Syria since operation Euphrates Shield began, the majority of which resulting from the fight for al-Bab, and have also lost 11 tanks and other military equipment.3 These figures do not account for the presumably higher casualties sustained by Turkey’s allies the FSA and other rebel groups.
As the Turkish operation slowly advances in al-Bab (if we are to believe the Turkish military they already have control of nearly half of the town4), the situation is becoming increasingly complicated and rife with potential for escalation. First of all there is a host of countries assisting the Turkish operation. The Russians have been conducting airstrikes in al-Bab against ISIL with coordination from Turkish military intelligence and it is also being reported, although denied by the Turks themselves, that the two countries have also conducted joint airstrikes in the area.5
Possibly in response to increased Russian-Turkish cooperation and following Turkish complaints, the US and NATO has also begun to assist the al-Bab operation. In the middle of January, US and British warplanes conducted separate airstrikes against ISIL targets in support of Turkey’s al-Bab operation.6
While the US and Russia are trying to work with Turkey, the Syrian regime, an ally of Russia, does not seem too keen having Turkish forces in their territory. The Syrian Foreign and Expatriates Ministry has filed two letters with the UN denouncing Turkey’s intervention in Syria and their occupation of some villages surrounding al-Bab.7
Prior to Syria’s diplomatic denouncement, in November an incident occurred in which three Turkish soldiers were killed in the vicinity of al-Bab by an airstrike.8 It seemed likely that the airstrike was carried out by Syrian regime warplanes, although some have posited that the culprit was an Iranian UAV.9 While Turkish Prime Minister Benali Yildirim warned “this attack and other such attacks will be retaliated” cooler heads have prevailed and outright hostilities between Turkey and Syria have not yet erupted.10
However, the prospects that such hostilities will occur are at an all time high. While Turkey has been besieging al-Bab from the north, the southern approaches to the town have remained open. This changed during the first week of February when Syrian regime and allied militia forces besieged al-Bab from the south having seized the highway linking the town with Raqqa.11 The ISIL forces in the town are completely trapped in a vice formed by Turkish and Syrian forces.
There is little doubt that Bashar al-Assad either wants to prevent Turkey from capturing al-Bab and thereby gaining an important foothold in northern Syria or at the very least wants to contain Turkish forces so that they can not move further south into Syrian territory. If one may wonder why Assad would be so concerned with the fate of al-Bab, then they should recalled the following statement made a couple of weeks ago by Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş (emphasis mine):12
“Al-Bab belongs to the people of Al -Bab. The Euphrates Shield Operation to Al-Bab is not an operation that aims to clear the area and then hand it over to the regime. It is an operation to protect the borders of Turkey and to immediately eliminate the threats to Turkey south of the border.”
So in effect, if the Turks capture al-Bab, they do not plan to hand it over to Assad. So it is perfectly understandable he is acting as he is. However, the issue with Assad’s strategy is that it potentially brings him into direct confrontation with Turkey. Already there are reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that after Turkish forces advanced into al-Bab they clashed with Syrian forces and sustained injuries and lost two armored vehicles.13 If this report is accurate then the situation between Syria and Turkey is escalating as we speak.
To further complicate this geopolitical milieu, on Thursday (Feb 9) 3 Turkish soldiers were killed and 11 injured in al-Bab by a Russian airstrike.14 While Putin has been quick to express his “condolences and regret” to Turkey over the accident,15 finger pointing has began between the two countries. According to Russian officials, the coordinates struck were given to them by the Turkish military, and as such there should not have been Turkish soldiers in that location.16 Turkish officials deny Russia’s claim, admitting they did in fact give coordinates to the Russians, but the coordinates specified the positions of Turkish soldiers.17
What ever the cause of the mistaken Russian airstrike against Turkey soldiers, it seems unlikely that this incident will significantly undermine relations between the two countries, yet it seems unlikely that relations between Syria and Turkey will remain stable.
It has been reported that 8,000 Turkish soldiers have been deployed in the final push to capture al-Bab18, in addition to the thousands more allied rebel forces. With such a substantial Turkish contingent arrayed face to face with Assad’s forces it won’t take much for the two sides to divert their attention from ISIL to one another. Then when we account for the presence and participation of Iranian, Russian, American and NATO forces, the situation becomes even more volatile.
 http://www.dailysabah.com/war-on-terror/2017/01/28/1864-daesh-terrorists-killed-since-beginning-of-op-euphrates-shield-mil-says , http://presstv.ir/Detail/2017/02/02/508792/Syria-Turkey-Daesh-airstrike , http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/02/dozens-isil-fighters-killed-turkish-led-forces-170209053641820.html , http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/4-isil-emirs-killed-in-turkish-airstrikes-in-syria-army-.aspx?pageID=238&nID=109346&NewsCatID=352 , http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-neutralizes-isils-political-leader-in-al-bab.aspx?pageID=238&nID=109380&NewsCatID=352
 https://www.turkishminute.com/2017/02/09/update-turkish-losses-in-syria-rise-to-69-after-russian-airstrike-kills-3/ , http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/01/turkey-syria-euphrates-shield-al-bab-offensive-stalls.html
 http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/russia-hits-isil-in-al-bab-on-turkish-military-intelligence.aspx?pageID=238&nID=107968&NewsCatID=352 , http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/01/russian-turkish-jets-bomb-isil-syria-al-bab-170118130233894.html , http://www.yenisafak.com/en/world/turkish-jets-not-involved-in-russian-air-strike-on-aleppoturkish-military-sources-2598850
 http://www.dailysabah.com/syrian-crisis/2017/01/18/coalition-jets-strike-daesh-targets-in-al-bab-in-first-air-operation-in-a-long-time , http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/us-carries-out-strikes-near-syrias-al-bab-after-turkish-criticism.aspx?pageID=238&nID=108662&NewsCatID=352
 http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/three-turkish-soldiers-killed-in-suspected-syrian-government-air-strike.aspx?pageID=238&nID=106496&NewsCatID=352 , http://www.yenisafak.com/en/world/taf-assad-regime-carried-out-attack-on-turkish-troops-in-n-syria-2569470
 http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2017/02/06/509364/Syrian-army-besieges-Daesh-Bab , http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/isil-besieged-in-northern-syrias-al-bab-says-monitor.aspx?pageID=238&nID=109425&NewsCatID=352
 http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-will-not-hand-over-al-bab-to-syrian-regime-deputy-pm.aspx?pageID=238&nID=108926&NewsCatID=352 , http://en.protothema.gr/turkey-will-not-hand-over-al-bab-to-syria/
 http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/russian-warplane-accidentally-kills-three-turkish-soldiers-in-syrias-al-bab-turkish-military.aspx?pageID=238&nID=109563&NewsCatID=352 , http://www.dailysabah.com/politics/2017/02/09/russian-jets-mistakenly-target-turkish-soldiers-near-al-bab-3-killed-11-injured
 http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-military-denies-russian-claim-on-providing-mistaken-coordinates-in-syria.aspx?pageID=238&nID=109616&NewsCatID=352 , https://www.dailysabah.com/diplomacy/2017/02/10/turkey-shared-coordinates-of-soldiers-to-prevent-accidents-military-says
 http://www.yenisafak.com/en/world/8000-turkish-soldiers-poised-to-attack-daesh-in-al-bab-2591872 , https://en.dailypakistan.com.pk/world/8000-turkish-soldiers-take-fight-to-isis-in-assault-on-syrias-al-bab/