ISTANBUL—Backed by Turkish air, armor and artillery support, Free Syrian Army forces announced on Thursday the capture Al Bab, a major stronghold of the so-called Islamic State in northern Syria, following a two and a half months of battle.
The city had served as the headquarters for ISIS intelligence operations, including terror attacks in Europe in 2015 and 2016. It is also an important stepping stone on the way to Raqqah, the capital of the putative ISIS caliphate.
“Al Bab is free and under Free Syrian Army control after intensive operations against Daesh [ISIS],” said Col. Abu Firas, official military spokesman for FSA forces in the Turkish-backed Operation Euphrates Shield. He said operations were now under way to clear the outskirts of the city.
The fighting may not be entirely over, because some ISIS militants may still be hiding in the vast water tunnel network beneath the town. Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik said Thursday that “almost all of Al Bab is under control now” and sweep operations are currently under way.
Videos posted by the Free Syrian Army showed troops posing for celebratory photos in the town’s main square, conducting minesweeping operations and driving in convoys through the town.
There is no doubt that ISIS had gone down to a major defeat.
“Today, we liberated Al Bab completely,” said Fahim Abu Ahmad, the commander of the Sultan Murad Division, in a widely distributed video. He was speaking on behalf of the joint operations room located in the village of Hwar Killis.
In another big setback for the extremists, U.S.-backed Iraqi forces stormed Mosul airport Thursday and captured the main runway. And in eastern Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces captured three more villages in the vicinity of Raqqah.
The capture of Al Bab upended the playing field in Syria’s multi-layered war, which started as a national uprising against President Bashar al Assad just under six years ago and took on the added dimension of a war against terror when ISIS emerged from the fighting to control vast swaths of territory of Iraq and Syria.
The U.S., Russia, Iran, and Turkey all have forces in Syria, and the alliances they’ve formed with forces on the ground intertwine in sometimes baffling ways. The battle for Al Bab has given new prominence to some players and left others in the dust.
The Free Syrian Army ground force that claimed victory in Al Bab Thursday, a collaboration of locally based anti-regime militias, had fallen into obscurity due to infighting, a lack of concerted outside support, and the judgment of many observers they were no longer a player.
Before taking office last month, President Donald Trump said the U.S. didn’t know anything about the forces that it’s been backing with arms in a program administered by the CIA.
Now that force is back on the map, it intends to use its new credibility to try to shape the battlefield in the months ahead, as the Trump administration steps up efforts to capture of Raqqa.
The Obama administration had intended to use the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces militia as its spearhead to capture Raqqa, a largely Arab city.
“We refused that,” said Mustafa Sijari, the political commander of the Mutasem Brigade, who’s also a spokesman for the FSA part of the Euphrates Shield operation. “We want to be the only part involved in the operation for taking Raqqa. We are now in a position to insist on that demand. We proved our efficiency, and the U.S. government can no longer say we can’t do it.”
They’ve paid in blood. According to Abdullah Agar, a Turkish security expert, the FSA lost some 470 fighters and had more than 1,700 wounded in the Turkish-backed fighting in Syria that began last August.
Also back on the map is Turkey itself, which provided special forces, heavy armor, weapons and ammunition to the FSA fighters. After ousting ISIS from Jarablus, the FSA in mid-September announced its next target was Al Bab.
Turkey has been criticized in Washington for not playing a prominent role in the U.S.-led war against ISIS. And many commentators depicted the Euphrates Shield operation as driven by Ankara’s fear that the U.S.-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units militia (YPG) would seize a corridor in Syria along the Turkish border, and try to split off predominantly Kurdish territory from southern Turkey to form a Kurdish state.
But as of Thursday, Turkey can claim a central role in liberating some 770 square miles of territory from ISIS— at a loss of 69 soldiers.
Defense Minister Isik also called on the U.S. to drop the Obama administration plans to use YPG-led forces to attack Raqqa. “Our wish is not to launch the operation in Raqqa with the terrorist elements of the …YPG but to do it with the FSA force and local fighters from Raqqa,” Defense Minister Issa said Thursday. “In such an operation with coalition forces, we will give the necessary support.”
While the FSA and Turkey have regained credibility by capturing Jarablus and Al Bab, the main losers, apart from ISIS, appear to be the YPG militia—which attempted to capture Al Bab, and the Assad regime, which opposed Turkey’s intervention and sent its own forces to capture the town, only to fail.
The biggest single military obstacle in the Al Bab battle was the network of fortified underground water conduits dug by the Syrian government before the war to bring water from the Euphrates river to Al Bab, according to FSA spokesman Sijari. They connect Al Bab to two nearby towns, Bza’a and Qabbasin, and ISIS used them to move from one town to the other.
“They made the job of the Turkish air force very difficult,” he said “After we captured the town of Bza’a…suddenly ISIS returned and attacked us from behind.” But FSA fighters were able to obtain a map of the network and destroyed all the key junctions, he said. “Hopefully they will no longer serve that function.”
The FSA announced Thursday night it had captured both Bza’a and Qabbasin as well.
As for the network of alliances between outside powers and internal players, it shows every sign of remaining as complex as it was, and not subject to the simple remedy of blowing up the points of intersection.
Russia and Iran back the Syrian government forces as well as the foreign militias fighting the Assad regime’s political opponents. The U.S. backs the anti-government rebels as well as the Kurdish People’s Protection Force (YPG) militia fighting ISIS. But the YPG has support from the Assad regime, Russia and Iran as well as from the U.S.
Turkey is at war with ISIS but also with the YPG, which is an extension of the PKK fighting Ankara inside Turkey. Russia conducted a number of airstrikes in the Al Bab operation in coordination with Turkey but also bombed Turkish forces, saying it was an accident, and Turkish media reported that a drone lofted by Iran had killed Turkish troops. The U.S. refused for several weeks to assist Turkey on the Al Bab front but then relented and contributed frequent airstrikes.
Special correspondent Duygu Guvenc contributed from Ankara