“Due to stiff resistance of the Daesh (ISIS) terror group, progress could not be achieved in an attack launched to take four settlements,” the Turkish military said in an October 12 statement quoted by Reuters. None of these four settlements were situated far south of the Turkish border, a clear indication that future successes will be more hard won than the initial success of the seizure of the border-town of Jarablus from ISIS militants on August 24 – which occurred after ISIS made what was clearly a tactical retreat to more easily fortifiable positions.
While the quality of the forces Turkey are backing are far from stellar they do nevertheless have the overwhelming fire support previously alluded to, as well as support from US coalition air power, and some US special forces soldiers also. Nevertheless, ISIS are having some success in following a policy which is enabling them to bleed out these militiamen (estimated to consist of at least 1,500 fighters) as they advance further south of the border.
ISIS even managed to bomb a border checkpoint, on October 13, in Azaz, which is controlled by the FSA, killing at least 14 of their soldiers. Earlier this month ISIS successfully managed to kill at least 25 more in a bomb attack (October 6) and another 21 fighters (October 2) when they rigged a town with explosives before withdrawing ahead of the those fighters’ advance.
Still the odds are overwhelming to ISIS’s disadvantage. They cannot easily withdraw from northwestern Syria to al-Raqqa, their primary base in Syria, since the Kurds control large parts of the Euphrates River following their capture of the Tishrin Dam from ISIS last December. So, they are essentially trapped in that region facing onslaughts of irregulars backed by a well-armed military, with no reinforcements or resupplies. This doesn’t mean they are not making headway in making the task Turkey has set out to achieve as difficult and as costly as possible.
Turkey has shown that its strategy has many weaknesses. Offiziere.ch previously noted that Turkey spearheaded its initial push into Syria with its older M60 Patton tanks, some of which quickly fell victim to rocket fire (at the time of writing and depending on the source 6-9 tanks), resulting in the few Turkish combat casualties in this campaign to date (11 soldiers). This, coupled with the aforementioned fact that Turkey is merely providing fire support to, presumably, relatively basically trained irregulars, does not inspire much confidence in a campaign which requires forces with sufficient counter-insurgency tactics to be able to hold the same territory they are able to overrun. Which is important since ISIS are known to blend in with civilian populations when they cannot repel their enemies on the battlefield, simply in order to attack them using other means later.
Turkey’s Syria incursion is likely set to evolve into a long-term military presence. Turkish officials want to establish their so-called “safe zone” across almost 90 km of the Syrian border and 60 km deep into Syria. It is already championing the present situation in Jarablus some 50 days after ISIS withdrew, which is returning to a state of normalcy, arguing that all the areas of northwestern Syria in their so-called safe zone will be like that in the long-term.
While Jarablus was relatively easy to reclaim other towns where the Turkish-backed militiamen have been fighting have been much tougher, sophisticated explosive traps and well dug-in ISIS militiamen are still proving to be an extremely formidable force to be reckoned with.
Jarablus was followed up by a much more recent victory, the seizure of the small town of Dabiq, 10 km south of the Turkish border on October 16. The tiny town – with a pre-war population of less than 3,500 – was of extreme symbolic importance to ISIS, which named its propaganda magazine after it, in reference to a Hadith that proclaims it to be the place where the Islamic armies defeat the Crusaders. Its capture was therefore of great symbolic significance to these Turkish-backed efforts, but by no means a strategic or even major tactical victory.
Therefore, its capture was, like Jarablus before it, far from definitive proof of the effectiveness or progress of the Turkish campaign and possibly an indication that ISIS is making tactical withdrawals to shore up other more valuable positions, such as the city of al-Bab, which had a pre-war population of at least 60,000 and is situated approximately 30 km from the Turkish border.
Al-Bab could prove at least as challenging for these irregulars to capture as Manbij was for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led group which, with continuous US air and intelligence support, fought for just under three months to seize that strategically important city from ISIS. The SDF consists of battle-hardened fighters who have had experience and prior success in fighting ISIS, whereas these FSA militiamen are relatively inexperienced. Before operation “Euphrates Shield”, Turkish-backed FSA rebels in northwestern Syria managed to seize the border-town of al-Rai from ISIS, only to lose it a few days later in a successful ISIS counterattack.
Meanwhile Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim is already warning of a vacuum in these areas which might be filled by their other adversary in Syria, the YPG, which have already clashed with Turkey’s Syrian militia allies since this campaign began.
Turkey looks set to maintain, mostly by proxy, a presence in these areas it captured from ISIS for what could well amount to a few years. Given the shortcomings they have experienced from the very start of this campaign it remains in question if they are prepared to undertake such a challenging endeavour, never mind execute it with the decisiveness it requires.