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Syrian War
Turkey Takes Al-Bab

As a new round of Syria peace talks kicks off in Geneva, Turkish forces appear to have prevailed in the crucial battle of al-Bab. Financial Times reports:

The Turkish military has seized control over most of al-Bab following a months-long battle against Isis in the strategically important northern Syria town, Turkey’s state media said. […]

The defeat of Isis in al-Bab is deemed critical to any offensive on Raqqa, the jihadi group’s Syrian stronghold and de facto capital of its self-declared caliphate.

Turkey’s race to take al-Bab turned it into a potential flashpoint between the many forces fighting in Syria, with the Assad regime advancing from the north, Russian, American and Turkish warplanes sharing the same sky and US-backed Kurdish militia also pushing in.

Ankara has been petitioning the Trump administration to abandon its support for the Kurdish militants, known as YPG. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, has made clear his desire to have Turkish-backed forces liberate Raqqa.

Turkey’s recapture of al-Bab after a prolonged three-month battle is a major development in the fight against ISIS. But the Turks’ hard-fought victory raises new questions about the next step of the campaign, at a time when the new U.S. administration has been far from clear about its own anti-ISIS strategy.

Retaking Raqqa is clearly the next objective, but neither Turkish forces nor the Free Syrian Army can accomplish this on their own. Meanwhile, Turkey has adamantly opposed the involvement of the Kurdish YPG, which the Obama administration had preferred to see at the forefront of a Raqqa offensive. Erdogan has already been lobbying Trump against that idea, but the new administration has so far been noncommittal about what role it sees for the Kurds. Trump has ordered the drafting of a new plan to defeat ISIS, which is expected to come at the end of the month; decision-makers in Turkey are no doubt waiting with bated breath.

Even if Trump puts together a winning military strategy to retake Raqqa without alienating the Turks, his longer-term plans for the Levant remain a mystery. In theory, the recapture of Raqqa and Mosul in quick succession could provide a number of opportunities for the U.S. to shape a more stable arrangement in the region, including a federalization process that could help offset Russia’s enhanced footprint and frustrate its attempts to coerce Turkey with the Kurdish issue. But this would require a long-term American commitment and a unitary vision for both Iraq and Syria, which Trump has yet to display. As always, political planning on Iraq and Syria has lagged behind military planning.

In any case, decision makers on all sides are waiting to see what the new administration has in store, and the Geneva talks are unlikely to go far without clear signals from Washington. Time will tell whether Team Trump has a viable strategy to retake Raqqa—and no less important, a plan for the day after.

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  • Andrew Allison

    Given the outcomes of the overthrow of Gaddafi and Hussein, why is the US so intent on toppling Assad? Surely it’s clear that the price paid by the Syrian population is far higher than it would otherwise have been, not to mention the geopolitical issues.

    • FriendlyGoat

      I suspect the Trump administration is not intent on toppling Assad at all.

    • Disappeared4x

      Assad violated human rights ‘norms’. As does Russia, and Turkey. Turkey gets a pass. Perhaps the Responsibility2Protect doctrine needs a rethink.

  • gabriel

    Alienate the Turks. They are less important than ever to the region, and the influence they do have is largely malign, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Gaza, and some very nasty rebel groups in Syria. They enabled ISIS to grow by permitting ISIS to supply itself via Turkey with both men and matériel and allow ISIS to smuggle oil into Turkey to fund itself.

    The most important reason is that the United States needs to show itself loyal – for once – to those who most strongly have cooperated with American objectives in the region. In Syria and Iraq, that is the Kurds. To sell out the Kurds to the Turks would indicate that America is fundamentally untrustworthy and ungrateful. That is a reputation that Obama did a great deal to earn, and Trump can do better.

  • ljgude

    I suspect that McMaster ‘s views will have to get baked into whatever emerges as administration policy. I hope he and Mattis can work out a unified Middle East vision with their long experience in the region and that they know the DC political ground well enough to keep self serving manipulations by the intelligence community and the professional diplomatic corps in check.

  • sacip

    Trump putting together a “military strategy” and having a “unitary vision”. HA HA HA HA HA

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