Before Operation Euphrates Shield, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) had already initiated an operation with artillery shots on the border and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) elements it supports inside, in an attempt to clear the Azaz-Jarablus line from Daesh and secure the region. In fact, this process, which started much earlier than Aug. 24, was the first phase of the operation. The TSK started the second phase by entering Syria first via Jarablus and then al-Rai. Since the beginning, I have written in this column that the operation would be thornier as it intensified, it would not progress as quickly as initial days after Dabiq, and complications might emerge as more players got to the scene as it neared al-Bab.
Experts described the challenges on the scene many times, but they also said the slow progress did not mean cessation. The urban warfare did not resemble the front war, so the slow progress was normal. The slow progress in the regions where many civilians live and which are used as a shield by Daesh was made by seizing villages, streets and even houses. Deploying soldiers there was almost like drawing blood from a rock. On the other hand, coalition forces which were led by Turkey's so-called ally, the U.S., did not give worthwhile support to the operation and carry out an airstrike that would prevent bomb-laden vehicles being carried to al-Bab from Raqqa. As a matter of fact, after the regime's take over of Aleppo, the Russians had done this several times in the framework of the joint struggle against Daesh and al-Nusra in parallel with the cease-fire that started in Syria with the assurance of Russia and Turkey. We learned that the Russian war crafts coming to the south of al-Bab from time to time were shooting Daesh positions in coordination with TSK.
It was known that Operation Euphrates Shield had no plan to go south from al-Bab within the determined targets, as this would mean confronting the regime, and that Turkey's main purpose was to create a safe zone as it planned and stop threats aimed at Turkey through the border. We can understand from the recent news that they are slowly nearing the end in al-Bab. The intensive operation launched by the TSK in what can be called the city center by entering from the west of al-Bab this week is one of the indicators of this. The striking detail in the General Staff's statement is that coalition jets joined the operation with airstrikes, destroying 13 targets in seven sorties.
Another indicator of nearing the end is the regime forces' march toward al-Bab. While the TSK and FSA closed in on al-Bab from western, northern and partly eastern sides, the Syrian army forces are continuing to progress in the south of the city. The regime finally seized the villages of Abu Talal and Deir Qaq in this region. Al-Bab's connection to Raqqa in the southeast is still open. The picture at the scene reveals that while Daesh eventually leaves al-Bab, it will flee to Raqqa. Al-Bab would be the natural border between Russia and Iran-backed regime and Turkey-backed FSA. Now, the question is what kind of contacts will be experienced when that border is formed.
A Russian jet taking off from the Khmeimim Air Base on the morning of Feb. 9 struck a building where Turkish troops were staying in al-Bab – which is of great importance to understand the present situation. Russian authorities defined the incident where three Turkish soldiers died and 11 others were injured as an accident. Russian Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov called his Turkish counterpart Gen. Hulusi Akar, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Russian President Vladimir Putin called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan without delay – strengthening the possibility that it was an accident and the idea that Russia did not target Turkey. It is within the bounds of possibility that there might be a lack of technical co-ordination between Turkish and Russian systems which are subject to NATO infrastructure and the Russian systems, and that they can face friendly fire in operations that are confined in a narrow space.
On Feb. 10, Russian Presidency Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov's statement that the Russians took the coordinates of that building from the Turks was confusing. Then the question of whether the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETÖ) could have a finger in this arose. The Turkish General Staff said that Turkish troops did not just come to that building, but had been there for 10 days. Government Spokesman Numan Kurtulmuş said it was an accident stemming from coordination mistake, but did not make a statement about how it took place.
We probably will not have a grasp of the essence of the matter without knowing its technical details. But even if this grave incident is an accident, it represents the great risks of multiple operations trapped in a confined space. As a matter of fact, the TSK not coming into contact with the regime forces which are 2 kilometers from al-Bab in some places depends on the strong coordination with Russia. If coordination problems are not resolved, it might be inevitable to see different pictures.
The importance of the coordination issue can be better understood given that it is not that easy for Turkey to have full confidence in Russia while the regime forces are moving toward al-Bab. The same goes for Russia in the days when Ankara is witnessing intensive visits. Imagine, following a telephone conversation between U.S. President Trump and Erdoğan, CIA Director Mike Pompeo visited Ankara. Many alternatives are being discussed, including sending U.S. troops to Raqqa, while Trump wants Pentagon to renew its plan for Syria. Also, Çavuşoğlu gave the green light to working with the Trump administration, announcing that "the goal is Raqqa after al-Bab.” On the other hand, following U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May's visit to Ankara, U.K. Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach is also visiting Ankara. The status quo in Syria, which is already on very fragile ground, will be reshaped with the administration change at the White House. And al-Bab, surrounded by our troops on three fronts, is at the center of this complex scenario.