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article imageWhy does the capture of Syria's Al-Bab matter?

By Gokan Gunes and Stuart Williams (AFP)     Feb 23, 2017 in World

The Syrian town of Al-Bab was for three years a key jihadist stronghold in northern Syria, whose capture Ankara hopes will give Turkey greater influence over the postwar shape of the country.

The town, whose name means "The Gate", had an estimated prewar population of some 100,000 but was the target of an over three-month assault by Turkey and allied rebel forces which met with fierce resistance.

On Thursday, pro-Ankara rebels said they had fully captured the city while Turkey said near complete control had been imposed, with lingering jihadists still needing to be flushed out.

Why was Al-Bab key for the jihadists?

Syria: Al-Bab
Syria: Al-Bab
, Graphic/AFP

Islamic State (IS) jihadists took full control of Al-Bab in early 2014 as they took swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in a lightning advance that stunned the region and the West.

According to Fabrice Balanche, visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, it became a stronghold of IS, home to many foreign jihadists and their families and on a crucial position on the road east to the jihadists' de-facto capital of Raqa.

"It was a base for IS to launch offensives against the Syrian army and rebels in Raqa province," he told AFP.

Al-Bab also brought in significant income for IS as it became a hub for those leaving Aleppo city for the north allowing the jihadists to tax their trucks, buses and cars.

But as the tide began to turn against IS in Syria, Al-Bab took on even greater importance as the final stronghold of the group in Aleppo province.

Aaron Stein, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said the taking of Al-Bab from IS will deprive the group of "an area where it was able to congregate and plot attacks against Syrians and the West."

What does Al-Bab mean for Turkey?

Opposition fighters backing Turkish troops gather on a road as smoke billows following an air strike...
Opposition fighters backing Turkish troops gather on a road as smoke billows following an air strike on an Islamic State (IS) group position on February 21, 2017, in the Syrian town of al-Bab
Rafat AHMAD, AFP/File

Dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed supporting Syrian rebels in the fight for Al-Bab as the jihadists put up fierce resistance, including the use of suicide bombers.

Turkey's offensive inside Syria began in lightning fashion with the capture of Jarabulus from IS on the first day of the operation on August 24 but stalled considerably in the fight for Al-Bab.

Yet Ankara persisted, insisting that the Al-Bab operation would be pressed to the end.

Although accused by allies of turning a blind eye to the group for too long, Turkey has a huge interest in eliminating IS which killed dozens inside the country in terror attacks in 2016.

But crucially, it also wants to prevent Syrian Kurdish forces -- who Ankara sees as a terror group -- linking up their "cantons" of Jazira and Kobane to the east with Afrin to the West.

The area north of Al-Bab controlled by pro-Turkish forces creates a crucial buffer between the cantons controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) that could give Ankara critical postwar access into northern Syria.

"The objective of the Turkish intervention in northern Syria is to prevent the joining of the Kurdish cantons of Afrin and Kobane," said Balanche.

Stein said Turkey had succeeded in the original stated aims of its "Euphrates Shield" campaign inside Syria.

"Turkish forces have forced ISIS (IS) from the border and cut the overland route between the two Kurdish cantons."

What next for Turkey?

Turkish soldiers stand drive a tank back to Turkey from the Syrian-Turkish border town of Jarabulus ...
Turkish soldiers stand drive a tank back to Turkey from the Syrian-Turkish border town of Jarabulus on September 2, 2016

Yet there had been no indication from Erdogan that the Turkish forces inside Syria want to rest on their laurels with the taking of Al-Bab.

The president has indicated they want to move east to Manbij, where Kurdish-dominated forces ousted IS last year, and made very clear to Washington that Ankara does not expect to find Kurdish militia in the town.

"The US does not want Turkey to march on Manbij," said Stein.

"I'm not sure Turkey really wants to march on Manbij but they want everyone to think they will, so they can extract concessions," he added.

Then Turkey has said it has Raqa in its sights, with Defence Minister Fikri Isik saying Ankara is prepared to join an international coalition to take the IS fiefdom but only if the Kurdish militia are not involved.

"The battle of Al-Bab should prove the efficiency of the Turkish army and its allies to the United States, so that they do not use the Kurds of the PYD as their main ally in the Raqa offensive," said Balanche.

But with a crucial referendum on expanding Erdogan's powers looming on April 16, the appetite for a continuation of an operation that has already claimed the lives of 69 Turkish soldiers remains to be seen.

"Raqa is just not feasible, I don't know how else to say it," said Stein.

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