Two rebel fighters near the town of Bizaa, in the suburbs of the Syrian town of al-Bab

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Two insurgent fighters close to the city of Bizaa, within the suburbs of the Syrian city of al-Bab

The Syrian city of al-Bab was reasonably insignificant till it emerged as a strategic stake between the Syrian president and his allies (Russia and Iran), Turkey, the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Occasion) and the so-called Islamic State group.

Located simply north-east of Aleppo, this small administrative centre of the bigger al-Bab district has about 100,000 inhabitants, along with 50,000 individuals dwelling in its suburbs.

Al-Bab was shortly occupied by rebels in spring 2012, and subsequently seized by IS through the winter of 2013-2014, which eradicated the opposite insurgent factions. The city has since change into an IS stronghold, dwelling to many international jihadists and their households. It has served as the premise of IS’s offensives in opposition to the Syrian military and the rebels in Aleppo province.

In the present day, town and its suburbs (Qabasin, Bizaa and Tadif) are virtually surrounded. Operation Euphrates Defend forces, led by the Turkish military, are closing in from the north, whereas the Syrian military, which has shortly superior over the past two weeks, strikes in from the south.

The Russian air pressure has additionally bombed the IS positions south of al-Bab, leaving Turkish aviation to strike targets within the metropolis itself. This implies that reasonably than competitors between the Syrian military and the Euphrates Defend forces for al-Bab, there’s coordination and a shared space of affect.

The Aleppo-Manbij street, to the south of al-Bab, could perform because the border between the Syrian Military and Euphrates Defend forces: al-Bab, Bizaa and Qabasin can be occupied by Turkey and Turkish-backed rebels, whereas the Syrian military can be happy with Tadif.

‘Stopping the Kurds’

The target of the Turkish intervention in northern Syria is to forestall the linkage of the Kurdish cantons of Afryn and Kobane. After regaining the htown of Manbij from IS in August, the Kurdish-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had deliberate to subsequent seize al-Bab and thus unify their territories. A race in the direction of al-Bab started between the SDF and the Turkish military. This was halted in December when Turkey bombed the SDF, sending a message that their advance wanted to cease.

Neither the Syrian regime nor Turkey had any curiosity within the Kurds taking al-Bab. The settlement between Russia and Turkey, in August 2016, joined by the Iranians, got here on the expense of Kurdish pursuits. Within the deal, Turkey additionally ceased aiding rebels in trade for Russian neutrality in Turkey’s marketing campaign in opposition to the Kurds.

East Aleppo was retaken by the regime quickly after the conclusion of this settlement; al-Bab, it appears, can be left for the Turks.

Rebels with totally different priorities

Turkey is, nonetheless, experiencing difficulties in seizing town. It has been making gradual progress since mid-November 2016 and should ship important reinforcements as a result of its Syrian proxies are usually not motivated by the battle for al-Bab. The first goal of those insurgent teams is to combat the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, not IS, and definitely to not collaborate with the Syrian Military in al-Bab.

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Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Istanbul in January, carrying the coffin of a Turkish soldier killed in a IS assault close to al-Bab

However Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has no alternative, as he wants to make use of the battle of al-Bab to show the effectiveness of the Turkish military and its Arab proxies, if there’s to be any hope of getting america to surrender a plan of creating SDF its principal ally within the offensive against IS in Raqqa, the group’s different stronghold within the nation’s east.

Taking al-Bab can also be a problem of home politics for President Erdogan, because it appeals to Turkish nationalism. If it succeeds, the Turkish military could lastly flip in the direction of Manbij, to be able to repulse the SDF to the east financial institution of the River Euphrates.

What subsequent?

President Assad is just not happy with Turkey making a zone of affect within the north, lower than 30km (20 miles) from Aleppo. Al-Bab was anticipated to have fallen to the Syrian military, which has been solely 10km south of town since January 2016. However the Russo-Turkish agreements appear to have determined in any other case.

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A girls carrying a toddler whereas fleeing IS-controlled al-Bab in February

What do Russia and Turkey foresee for the long run? Will the Turkish military be allowed to advance even additional south, after which head for Raqqa by the southern shore of Lake Assad?

That is troublesome to think about: the development of the Syrian military south of al-Bab appears to point that it’s going to subsequent go in the direction of Lake Assad to chop the Turkish route.

If President Erdogan needs to go to Raqqa he should assault the SDF, the US allies postpone the offensive on Raqqa. It’s, due to this fact, in IS’s curiosity to lengthen the battle of al-Bab, growing the potential for Turkish-US discord, as its finest technique for shielding Raqqa.

Fabrice Balanche is a visiting fellow on the Washington Institute for Close to East Coverage within the US