The next operational step in SDF’s (Syrian Democratic Forces) successful campaign of ousting ISIS from Rojava (Kurdish for “West”; name for northern Syria) was under debate after the liberation of Manbij from the terrorist occupation. One option was advancing towards the north, where Da’esh still has villages under control, and then continue to Jarabalus and free a major Turkish border checkpoint.
If you’re not up to date with the liberation of Manbij, check out this short video briefing:
The other option was Al-Bab, located in the heart of Da’esh control in northern Syria, being only connected and supplied by a south-east corridor pouring from Raqqa Governorate and south of the Euphrates. Al-Bab’s newly formed Military Council has called for the Coalition to support its announced objective of freeing the city and the surroundings of ISIS. SDF will coordinate and participate in the effort.
Declaration of the Al-Bab Military Council (with English subtitles)
Jarabulus, a Turkish affair?
Attempts by YPG (Kurds, People’s Protection Units), the leading faction in the SDF, to take Jarabalus were blocked by political pressure from Turkey, which threatened to use the Armed Forces if the Kurds will advance to take the city.
For Turkey, Kurdish consolidation in Rojava is the biggest and most immediate national defense threat, thereby Ankara acted accordingly to this status. Meanwhile, ISIS consolidated ground in Jarabalus regardless of some FSA half-successfully efforts of taking the city in 2013, 2014.
The eventual benefits of Al-Bab
These might be the main reasons seen from the outside for not advancing towards Jarabalus; but taking Al-Bab could have a longer term value and even strategic depth. A liberation of Al-Bab would strike at the heart of Da’esh control in Rojava, thereby disconnecting the north of ISIS territory, near the Turkish border, from the south of it; the ISIS-held territory south of Al-Bab now looks and acts like a corridor. The pathway goes down between the two Lakes (Al Jaboul Lake; Assad Lake) and follows the Euphrates to Raqqa (self-proclaimed capital of ISIS) and beyond .
Al-Bab is also a major road intersection, connecting Aleppo City to Manbij; and linking Al-Rai (far north) to usable routes that lead even to Raqqa following the Euphrates.
Moreover, Al-Bab is flanked in the south-west by the (SAA) Syrian Arab Army (Loyalist; Assad) which is known to be in a blurry alliance (non-aggression & battle-synchronization protocol) with the Kurdish YPG/J. While the SAA is busy dealing with the Rebel offensive in southern Aleppo, they might help the Kurds in liberating Al-Bab’s surroundings. This may look like an advantage for the Kurdish fighting capacity but it’s actually a liability, a wild card. Working in these battles with the SAA would actually damage the SDF’s support and trust from the US, which even established an air base in Rojava to aid their fight. SDF is a Washington initiative and it’s only normal that the Pentagon wants to keep it that way; away from Damascus and Moscow interference, but with an exclusive YPG leadership that is interested in Assad-neutrality, Russian support, it could prove to be quite problematic.
An eventual victory in Jarabulus would indeed bring an immediate satisfaction to the Coalition’s operational interests, of ousting ISIS from the Turkish border and thereby cutting some rumored/ alleged logistics or maneuverability capabilities of the terror organization. But it would also renew tensions between Ankara and YPG that would impact SDF’s performance –a liability that the Coalition doesn’t need right now, especially in the context of degrading Turkish-American relations (Gulen/Coup d’Etat/Incirlik Base). Then again, Turkey’ defense component has been severely damaged on the outside, whether the Army is still capable for projecting hard power remains to be seen.
The liberation of Jarabulus could also happen if a City Military Council is firstly established with a major Arab component that would legitimize the action in the eye’s of Turkey. Until then Jarabulus is a “no-go zone” for the Kurds.
The Al-Bab Military Council has been already established that will fight alongside the SDF and has called for an US-led Coalition air support. Their primary objectives will be to liberate the city and its surrounding villages.