Islamic State faces multiple adversaries in Al Bab, Syria

In mid-November of last year, the government of Turkey began an assault on the Islamic State stronghold of Al Bab, Syria. The effort, which was led by fighters from Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield, eventually stalled. The jihadis have held onto Al Bab, which is located in the northern part of the Aleppo province, for more than two months since.

Al Bab has become the latest flashpoint in the Syrian war — a complex, multi-sided conflict — with various actors converging in the area. Both the US and Russia have bombed Islamic State targets from the air, while Turkey and Bashar al Assad’s regime have closed in on the ground.

The US initially hesitated to provide direct aerial support for Turkey’s military operations in and around Al Bab. That changed after the Turks turned to Russia for additional air support. The New York Times described their cooperation as “an important evolution in a budding Russian-Turkish partnership.”

The US-led coalition “continues to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to support its Turkish partners in the fight against ISIL [Islamic State] around al Bab in northwestern Syria,” Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told the press on Jan. 26.

“Additionally, the coalition continues to conduct deliberate and dynamic strikes against [Islamic State] targets of the vicinity of Al Bab,” Davis added. Since the beginning of 2017, coalition warplanes “have conducted about 20 strikes in the vicinity of” Al Bab, “destroying ISIL vehicles, fighting positions, indirect-fire systems, command-and-control nodes and vehicle bombs,” the Defense Department’s news release reads. According to data released by Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), “two strikes engaged four [Islamic State] tactical units and destroyed a vehicle” near Al Bab on Jan. 30.

The airstrikes in Al Bab are part of a new American effort to give Turkish-backed fighters air support during the offensive.

Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook was asked about American air operations in Al Bab on Jan. 3. He denied that the Americans were bombing Islamic State targets near the town.

During a press briefing, Cook said that coalition aircraft had responded to a call for assistance from Turkish-forces that had come under fire. But the Americans didn’t carry out “a strike specifically.” Instead, according to Cook, coalition aircraft provided “a visible show of force.” Cook added that Turkish fighters and allied “Syrian forces” are involved in a “serious” and “important” fight for the town.

The Islamic State’s propaganda arm, Amaq News Agency, has celebrated the jihadis’ ability to hold off Turkey in Al Bab thus far. On Jan. 12, Amaq released an infographic (seen above) offering self-reported statistics on the fighting. Amaq claimed that 21 “martyrdom operations” (suicide attacks) and other tactics had thwarted the Turkish advance up until that point. Amaq has also streamed other content from the battle, including images of Turkish tanks and vehicles that have been allegedly destroyed.

Al Bab has long been one of the Islamic State’s main hubs inside Syria. Abu Muhammad al Adnani, the group’s spokesman and senior manager tasked with overseeing plots against the West, was killed in an American airstrike near the town in Aug. 2016.

The Islamic State is no longer contending with just Turkish-backed ground forces approaching from the north. In mid-January, Bashar al Assad’s regime, with Russian air cover, began their own push toward Al Bab, thereby squeezing the jihadis from multiple directions.

Syrian regime forces approaching Al Bab from the south

Syrian Armed forces and allied militias have captured a number of towns and villages south of Al Bab since beginning their assault. Their offensive has been documented by pro-regime news sources, as well as independent, anti-regime outlets.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported on Jan. 27 that the Syrian regime’s assault is led by Suheil al Hassan, the commander of the Tiger Forces. Al Hassan’s men have reportedly captured villages, a university and various other points on their approach. SOHR described it as a “wide military operation” by the Assad regime, and pointed out that al Hassan has battled the Islamic State’s men in Aleppo before, including during clashes at a power plant in the province last year.

The so-called caliphate’s Amaq News Agency has released a number of videos and photos from the fighting.

One video, released on Jan. 26, documents a suicide attack on Syrian regime forces using a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED). According to Amaq, the bombing took place in a village named Madyunah, which is southwest of Al Bab.

A screen shot from Amaq’s short clip can be seen on the right. Plates of armor were added to the front of the explosives-laden vehicle and also covered its wheels. This is a common tactic used in the Islamic States’s VBIED operations, as it is intended to prevent the vehicle from being disabled by enemy fire before reaching its target.

Another video, released on Jan. 27, includes scenes of Islamic State fighters clashing with Syrian regime forces near the same village. Later that day, Amaq posted a video of Syrian regime helicopters dropping barrel bombs in the area. Still other Amaq videos and statements purportedly document battles with Assad’s loyalists near the town of Khanasir, which is also located in Aleppo province.

It remains to be seen if this ad hoc coalition of forces can eject the Islamic State from Al Bab in the coming weeks.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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5 Comments

  • Dwight Newsom says:

    The Russians and Turks have gotten themselves into the swamp and now how do they get out of it? They will fight till Russia runs out of money or men which ever comes first.

  • Robert says:

    I doubt if the boy scout troop (Turkish troops) were truly under duress from withering fire, but needed the cavalry to come save them from someone taking pop shots at them. Of course the US had to respond or Edgy would whine about lack of US air support.

  • den says:

    Holy crapcakes, you almost don’t know who to side with on this… watching Assad’s ass get kicked is almost as fun as seeing Turkey and Russia get a severe eye poking from the
    “Rag-tag bunch” in Al bab.

  • irebukeu says:

    I read somewhere last week (OK it was LiveLeak) that the Turks, having been repelled three times by the IS, had decided to let the Syrian Arab Army take the town. I have no idea if this is true, it sounded a little far fetched-cooperation at that scale but here comes the SAA right down the road to al-Bab while the Turks withdraw just a little, not seeming to occupy any part of al-Bab this week whereas last week they did. It will be interesting to see what will happen.

  • Ken says:

    It is sad. All these people dying. And for what?
    A twisted 7th century grounded ideology of murder and mayhem.
    Where there is a twisted leader there will murderous people willing
    to hide behind his twisted ideology for the purpose of
    carrying out the evil that is embedded within their hearts.

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