Turkish and Assad’s forces Race Each Other to Take Al-Bab from ISIS

Turkish-led troops are racing Bashar Assad’s army to be the first to capture the northwestern Syrian town of Al-Bab, the Islamic State’s last stronghold in the northern Aleppo region, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report.
Both claimed advances on Sunday, Feb. 5.
The force made up of Turkish and Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel troops claimed to have captured the village of Bzaah east of Al-Bab, while pro-Assad troops moved into Aran, 6km to the southwest.
The US-led coalition initially approved Turkey’s invasion of Syria last year to fight ISIS forces close to its border, but the Obama administration withdrew this support in December, when Turkish troops launched their offensive to capture Al Bab, which is located 30km deep inside Syria.
Since then, the ISIS defenders using suicide car bombs and improvised explosive devices have repeatedly thrown back waves of Turkish military assaults. Our military sources note that the Turkish army’s failure to break through ISIS defenses at Al-Bab in nearly 10 weeks of fighting indicates that something is amiss in its military machine.
Early on, the Turks tried to break down Islamist resistance with a barrage of heavy artillery, followed by a tank assault for storming the town, but fell back after sustaining a cruel toll of casualties.
In early January, the Turkish high command tried concentrating elite commando units around the targeted town in an effort to break through the fortifications ISIS had set up in the surrounding villages. This strategy also failed.
Last week, Assad’s generals, seeing the Turkish army’s still struggling against the odds, decided to launch a rival operation. They soon claimed to have recaptured 32 towns and villages from ISIS’ grip and gained control of a 16-km stretch of the highway linking Al-Bab to Aleppo city.
Hoping to scare the Turks off the battlefield, pro-Assad military sources threatened to directly confront the FSA rebel militia fighting alongside the Turkish army. They also tried diplomatic warfare. The foreign ministry in Damascus complained to the UN that foreign Turkish troops and FSA rebels had overrun villages around Al-Bab, and denounced their “repeated crimes and attacks on the Syrian people and violations of Syrian territory.”
Ankara, for its part, announced that Turkey would not let the Assad regime get its hands on Al-Bab before a political settlement was finalized.
Turkey, however, is in no position to decide who gets its hands on the ISIS bastion. On Monday, Feb. 6, its troops suffered another battlefield setback. After holding Bzaah for just one day, the Turkish-FSA army lost it with heavy casualties following an Islamist State counterattack, backed by three suicide car bombs.
At the same time, pro-Assad forces continued their relentless advance from the southwest.
Nonetheless, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus unequivocally denied having agreed in December to cede Al-Bab to the Assad regime.
Russia, which holds the key to yet another Syrian dispute, is not showing its cards.
Ankara doesn’t know if Moscow, its close partner in the Syrian peace process, will be supportive if and when Turkish troops manage to grab the disputed town from ISIS before Assad’s troops get there.
The Syrian ruler, equally perplexed, will think twice before confronting Turkey over Al-Bab, in the absence of assured Russian support.
But Moscow’s top priority at this time is not to settle the quarrels of its allies but to preserve the ceasefire it brokered two months ago, as a step towards a political settlement of the Syrian conflict, although the cessation of hostilities is not complete, so long as it excludes the Islamic State and the Nusra Front.

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