BEIRUT -- Nearly two months into the assault, Turkey has become bogged down in a bloody fight to retake the Islamic State extremist group's last stronghold in northern Syria. It has been forced to pour in troops, take the lead in the battle from its Syrian allies and reach out to Russia for aerial support.
The fight for al-Bab underscores the precarious path Turkey is treading with its foray into Syria, aimed against both Islamic State militants and Syrian Kurdish fighters. The assault on the city had already driven a wedge between Turkey and the United States, and now the realignment toward Russia, which supports the government in Syria's civil war.
The battle itself has proved grueling.
Nearly 50 Turkish soldiers have been killed in its Syria operation, most of them since the al-Bab assault began in mid-November -- including 14 killed in a single day. The militants have dug in, surrounding the town with trenches, lining streets with land mines and carrying out ambushes and car bombings against the besieging forces. Each time Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters have thrust into the city, they've been driven out. More than 200 civilians are believed to have been killed since the attack began Nov. 13. Mud and cold rain have only made it more of a slog.
"The battle for al-Bab has been mostly about killing civilians and destroying the city, whether by Daesh or the Turks," said Mustafa Sultan, a resident of al-Bab and a media activist who has been covering the fight. He used the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
"The town is almost half destroyed. Daesh takes cover in hospitals [and] schools, and these end up getting targeted," he said. The Turkish military says it takes great care not to harm civilians, halting operations that could endanger noncombatants.
Capturing al-Bab is essential to Turkey's goals in Syria.
Turkey, which for years supported the Syrian opposition drive to oust President Bashar Assad, has recalibrated its priorities toward fighting Islamic State militants, who turned their terror against the Turkish state, and thwarting Kurdish aspirations for autonomous rule along Syria's border with Turkey.
If al-Bab is retaken, it would break the Islamic State's presence near the border and plant a Turkish-backed presence between Kurdish-held territory to the east and west, preventing them from linking.
For the U.S., the al-Bab assault risks causing direct confrontation between Turkish troops and Syrian Kurdish forces, which are leading a U.S.-backed offensive toward the declared Islamic State capital, Raqqa. The U.S. has supported and relied upon the Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State over the past two years.
Last month, Turkey protested to the U.S. that its NATO ally was providing no help in al-Bab. A day later, Turkey said Russia carried out three airstrikes in the al-Bab area.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday that the U.S. has seen no indication of Russian-Turkish coordination, only independent Russian airstrikes in al-Bab.
After Turkey's protest, U.S. officials said discussions with Turkey continue over al-Bab, an important effort against the Islamic State. Turkey said Dec. 30 that the U.S.-led coalition carried out an airstrike in the al-Bab region.
The offensive also has revealed how unprepared Turkish-allied Syrian rebels are for a protracted fight against the Islamic State.
Ankara increased its initial deployment of 600 soldiers -- which included special forces and mechanized battalions -- to at least 4,000 today, according to Metin Gurcan, a former Turkish military adviser who served in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Iraq and is now an independent security analyst. Turkish troops now outnumber the Syrian opposition fighters who were supposed to be "the primary ground force," Gurcan wrote on the news site Al-Monitor.
He said some Syrian fighters have withdrawn, "and because of their lack of discipline in the field, Turkish commandos are now engaged in front-line fighting against [the Islamic State]."
Unlike the Islamic State-held town of Jarablus, which Turkey's allies entered almost without a fight in August, the militant group prepared to defend al-Bab. Extremist fighters have taken positions on hilltops, used drones and repeatedly have shown a capability in waging pitched battles.
After Turkish troops and Syrian fighters secured a strategic hilltop on the town's edge in late December, the Islamic State opened a surprise counteroffensive, killing 14 Turkish soldiers and over two dozen Syrians.
One Syrian opposition commander said there were three battles around the hill.
"We had to pull out more than once because they encircled us and we had many martyrs," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss battlefield details.
Another battle on the eastern side of al-Bab lasted 15 hours, starting from hilltops and ending in a valley at close range with dozens killed and many armored vehicles damaged. Sultan, who arrived afterward, was startled by the silence as bodies were cleared away.
The Turkish-backed fighters, who number about 2,000, have entered al-Bab several times and each time are driven out by the militants, estimated to number around 3,000, Sultan said.
"The fighters, frankly, are afraid of the mines, which cause most of the deaths," Sultan said.
Al-Bab had a prewar population of 60,000, and it's not known how many remain.
Information for this article was contributed by Suzan Fraser, Robert Burns and Vladimir Isachenkov of The Associated Press.
A Section on 01/12/2017
Print Headline: Turkey takes bigger role in fight for Syrian town