ISTANBUL: Turkey is enduring the biggest challenge of a 5-month-old military campaign inside Syria as it battles to capture the town of Al-Bab from Daesh (ISIS) militants, taking heavy casualties and testing an army stretched by post-coup purges. The ambitious “Euphrates Shield” operation – with Turkish forces backing pro-Ankara Syrian rebels in an unprecedented incursion – began in spectacular style in August as the army ousted militants from a succession of border towns including Jarablus.
But Al-Bab, which symbolically means “The Gate” in Arabic, has proved far tougher, with Turkish officials predicting repeatedly in the last few weeks that it will be taken imminently but with no clear end in the near sight.
At least 48 Turkish soldiers have been killed in the incursion so far, according to an AFP tally, the vast majority in the battle for Al-Bab since the fight for the town began on Dec. 10.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed Friday that Turkey would “finish the job” in Al-Bab, but indicated it was not necessary to push any deeper inside Syria.
Turkey has repeatedly complained of being isolated by its NATO allies in the operation, although Ankara has recently won some backing from its newfound ally Moscow.
But the operation has come with NATO’s second largest standing army facing troubles after the failed July putsch, with more than 6,000 soldiers and 168 generals – half the entire pre-coup contingent – arrested in the crackdown.
Showing the tremors from the coup are still shaking the army, several soldiers who had been due to go on trial last week did not appear in court in Istanbul as they were waging the Al-Bab campaign.
“Euphrates Shield is under-resourced,” said Aaron Stein, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
“The rebels Turkey is fighting with are poorly trained and have, for years, proved incapable of taking and holding territory.”
Whereas Jarablus is practically on the border, Al-Bab is 25 kilometers south of the frontier and a far tougher logistical proposition.
Faruk Logoglu, a former Turkish ambassador to the United States and ex-opposition MP, said the Turkish-led campaign “is lacking final objectives and an exit strategy.”
“The target given is well beyond what’s achievable. That’s the problem,” he told AFP.
“Turkey risks being drawn further into the Syria quagmire.”
Daesh in December claimed to have burned to death two Turkish soldiers – although this was never confirmed by Ankara – while the corpses of two kidnapped soldiers were returned this month.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute, said Turkey had suffered from the lack of support for the operation from the United States.
“Because Ankara launched its move to take Al-Bab from [Daesh] without securing concrete cooperation with the U.S., Turkey had to move forward alone.”
“This naturally slowed down the operation. This is why Ankara has moved to secure Russian air support,” he told AFP.
In November, the Pentagon said the U.S.-led international coalition was not backing the Al-Bab campaign because it was “independently” launched by Turkey.
That prompted Ankara to turn to Moscow, even though the two have been on opposing sides of the Syria conflict since it erupted in 2011.
But Turkey and Russia late last year brokered a cease-fire in Syria and have stepped up cooperation since.
The two countries on Jan. 18 staged their first joint airstrikes against Daesh around Al-Bab, the Russian Defense Ministry declared.
By taking Al-Bab, Turkey is keen to prevent Syrian Kurdish militia allied to the U.S. from establishing a stronghold in the area. Ankara even wants to push northeast to Manbij, where the Kurds ousted Daesh.
In January, the U.S.-led coalition in its turn conducted four strikes near Al-Bab and Turkey has greater expectations from the new U.S. administration under President Donald Trump.
Cagaptay said Turkish forces were being targeted by Daesh foreign fighters who had been largely encircled by many offensives in Syria and Iraq and were engaged in a fight to the death, ready to employ suicide bombers.
“For these foreign fighters, there are two ways out: capture by anti-[Daesh] forces, or death,” he said.