The Turkey-backed Free Syrian army said on Tuesday it will continue to attack regime forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) southeast of their positions in al-Bab following Syrian army advances south of the city.
On Monday, Syrian regime forces advanced southeast of FSA-held al-Bab reaching areas under the control of the SDF. As a result, the FSA factions, part of Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield, are encircled by regime forces and the US-backed SDF to the east and south and are unable to proceed towards ISIL-held Raqqa, which Ankara had identified as a major goal of its operation.
According to an FSA commander, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, ISIL withdrew from its positions southeast of al-Bab allowing the regime forces to capture 20 villages, including Aran, Al-Barij, and Abu al-Jibar. The regime forces reached SDF-controlled territory in the village of Jub al-Khafi, he said.
The FSA commander added that the establishing of this territorial connection will increase the coordination between the regime forces and the SDF, which will be to the detriment of the FSA.
On Monday, an SDF spokesperson told Reuters that the Syrian army’s advance would bring benefits to civilians in the area. “On the trade front and on the civilian front, it is seen as an excellent thing, because now there is … a link between the entire northern rural area,” spokesman Talal Silo said.
At the same time, the FSA clashed with Syrian government forces near the village of Tadif, just 2km southeast of al-Bab. It has also continued to clash with the SDF north and west of the city of Manbij, which is under SDF control and which the Turkish government has also identified as a potential target of its operation after the capture of Al Bab from ISIL.
The SDF is dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers a “terrorist” organisation related to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016 to prevent the YPG from uniting territories under its control east and west of the Euphrates River.
Turkish analysts say that Turkey, FSA’s main backer, will most likely prevent any major escalation from happening.
Metin Gurcan, an Istanbul-based security analyst, said it is unlikely that Euphrates Shield forces will try to break the territorial bridge between the SDF and the regime forces, as Ankara cannot risk a major confrontation with Assad in advance of the national constitutional referendum scheduled for April. In his opinion, Russia and the United States would also not allow hostilities to escalate between Turkey and the Assad regime.
“The option of advancing toward Raqqa from al-Bab is now gone,” said Gurcan, adding that the Turkish government will likely seek to advance against the YPG and SDF in Manbij and to consolidate control over Al Bab. The Turkish military has established a temporary base on Al Aqil hill near al-Bab, which could transform into a more permanent one like the Turkish base in Bashiqa in northeast of Mosul, he said.
In his opinion, the US still needs Turkish participation in the operation to capture Raqqa from ISIL because it cannot rely solely on Kurdish forces.
“The US needs Turkish help because it needs armoured forces to initiate this Raqqa operation […] and the US needs Turkish presence, Sunni presence, not to get a [negative] reaction from the Sunni population in Syria and in the region,” explained Gurcan, adding that the presence of Kurdish forces in Raqqa could create tensions with the local Arab population.
In the past few weeks, US officials held multiple consultation meetings with Turkish officials who have expressed their opposition to Kurdish-dominated SDF participating in the offensive on Raqqa. Last week, a top US general visited SDF-held territories in northern Syria promising military support.
On Monday, the Pentagon submitted a proposal to the Trump administration on how to speed up the fight against ISIL in Syria. Based on this proposal, the White House is expected to reveal its plan of action on Syria in the coming days and detail its strategy on capturing Raqqa.