Months after Turkey’s incursion into Syria’s war-tormented landscape in the north, the Turkish military runs deep into a series of troubles as casualties of troops surge, its soldiers have gone missing and tanks are blown up one by one by a different set of foes.
Contact with two soldiers have been lost, the Turkish military said in a statement on Tuesday, as Turkey-backed rebel forces push for al-Bab, a strategic point northeast of Aleppo. But the battle for al-Bab has already proved to be costly and Islamic State, or ISIS, militants clung to their last stronghold in northern Syria, fighting ferociously more than ever.
The military did not elaborate on details whether two soldiers were kidnapped or justly simply went missing. The militant ISIS group’s Amaq news agency, however, claimed that its fighters have captured two Turkish soldiers near al-Dana village, northwest of al-Bab. The Turkish officials have neither confirmed nor denied the claim.
Last week, five Turkish soldiers have been killed during battles with the extremist group, while three of them would be killed in an airstrike suspected to be carried out by the Syrian air forces. The Turkish military first time pointed to the regime forces for killing its soldiers in what seems a first encounter between the two sides. This reveals the complex nature of battleground in Syria and exposes the dangers and threats that await the Turkish forces entangled in northern Syria where a number of warring parties jostle for control of territory.
The Syrian regime forces renewed its long-simmering push to encircle and besiege eastern Aleppo where civilians and rebels trapped, leading to mass displacement of ordinary people while stoking fears of a humanitarian tragedy. Emboldened by intensifying airstrikes by Russia, Damascus sees in takeover of Aleppo, the heart of rebellion, a possible breakthrough to decisively defeat the rebellion across the war-torn country. To swing the pendulum of the war again in its favor, the regime seeks to take over Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city and a vibrant economy, now is no different from a wasteland after five-year-old bloody war between rebels and the government forces.
Turkey, once an ardent backer of the rebel cause, eventually scaled backed its ambitions over Syria, and now pay little attention to the hell that breaks loose in Aleppo as it focused on its redefined objectives for northern part of the country. Bashing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was a daily routine for Turkish leaders, but no more. For Ankara, who controls northern Syria, is a far urgent matter and concern after emergence of Syrian Kurds as a formidable player at local level, capable of drawing the political map in the north.
That was the main drive behind Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria, to curb expansion of Kurds, both politically and militarily.
Turkey plunged into Syria in late August to dislodge ISIS from the Syrian border town of Jarabulus, which sits next to Karkamis, the Turkish border town. One of the primary objectives of the military campaign to clear an area of 55-mile territory of ISIS elements and clear the entire border. Turkey appears to have achieved majority of its stated goals. In addition to that stated goal, Turkey has a far urgent task of containing Kurdish expansion in northern Syria.
Turkey-allied rebels now push deep toward north of Aleppo, and eye for capturing al-Bab, which emerged as the main point for rivalry between a number of players; Russia-backed Syrian army, U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militants and Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels.
As the scope of its operation widens, it exposes the Turkish troops open to dangers from all sides. Turkish forces have already engaged in clashes with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), Syria’s major Kurdish political party. In August and September, the YPG destroyed several Turkish tanks by firing anti-tank rockets it acquired from Turkey’s Western allies. Several Turkish soldiers were killed in the attacks, while the Turkish F-16 jets regularly targets Kurdish positions near Manbij, north of Aleppo and rural areas of Afrin.
The YPG, the most reliable fighting force for the U.S. against Islamic State in Syria, opened cracks between Turkey and U.S. relations. Its ties with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is enough for the Turkish leaders to regard the Syrian group as a terrorist organization while Western powers persistently make a distinction between PKK and YPG. The U.S. and EU see PKK as a terrorist group while they harbor different feelings for its Syrian offshoot for its contribution to the anti-ISIS fight.
Turkey’s entanglement in northern Syria has become possible after rapprochement with Russia in August. Turkey shot down a Russian jet last year, and was out of the game in Syria until this summer as ties with Russia went through perilous and tension-filled months.
Moscow was finally content to Turkish plans in northern Syria after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited St. Petersburg early in August to mend ties. Ankara regularly informed Russia over its Syria mission, diplomatic sources tell national media. While both countries share different goals and back different sides in Syria’s protracted war, they have recently cultivated cordial relations.
How far Turkey will push southward therefore depends on Russian willingness to allow the Turkish forces move forward.
“Right now the question is whether Russia will allow Turkey to seize al-Bab,” an official from the Muntasir Billage rebel brigade told Reuters.
“There’s a political equation here. It’s not about whether Turkey has enough tanks, soldiers and weapons, but whether there’s any room for such a move from Turkey in the equation,” he said in an interview with Reuters.