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.