• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal


Is it time for our Spring fundraiser already? If you enjoy what we offer, and have the means, please consider donating. The sooner we reach our modest goal, the faster we can get back to business as (un)usual. Please, stay safe and we’ll see you down the road.

The Long War: Turkey’s Difficult Struggle Against ISIS in Syria

The Turkish army is suffering unexpectedly serious losses in men and equipment as it engages in its first real battle against Isis fighters holding al-Bab, a small but strategically placed city north east of Aleppo. Turkish military commanders had hoped to capture al-Bab quickly when their forces attacked it in December, but they are failing to break through Isis defences.

At least 47 Turkish soldiers have killed and eleven tanks disabled or destroyed according to the Turkish military expert Metin Gurcan writing in al-Monitor. Isis have posted a video showing a Turkish tank being destroyed, apparently by an anti-tank rocket and Isis fighters looking at the wreckage of other armoured vehicles.

The Turkish military intervention in northern Syria, known as Operation Euphrates Shield, which began on 24 August last year has also led to heavy civilian casualties. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing local witnesses, says that 352 civilians including 77 children and 48 women have been killed by Turkish artillery bombardments and air strikes over the last five months. Drone footage taken by Isis shows that the buildings in al-Bab, that once had a population of 100,000, have been devastated.

Turkey had intended to make a limited military foray into the territory between the Turkish frontier and Aleppo city 40 miles further south which would make it a serious player in the Syrian conflict. It would drive Isis from its last big stronghold in northern Syria at al-Bab and, above all, prevent the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from linking up their enclaves at Kobani and Qamishli with one at Afrin, north west of Aleppo.

The strategy has proven far more costly and slower to implement in the face of determined and skilful Isis resistance than Ankara had foreseen. It wanted primarily to rely on Arab and Turkman militiamen under Turkish operational control, though these would be nominally part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) umbrella group. These proxies would be backed up by Turkish artillery, air strikes and a limited number of Turkish ground troops.

The plan seemed to work in the beginning as the Turkish forces took over the Isis-held town of Jarablus, where the Euphrates River crosses the Turkish border. But swift success here came because Isis did not fight, its men retreating or shaving off their beards and melting into the local population. But when the Turkish-backed FSA advance failed to break through Isis lines in and around al-Bab, Turkey had to reinforce them with its own units which now do the bulk of the fighting.

Turkish leaders blamed their problems partly on the US which has failed to make more than a few air strikes in support of the al-Bab offensive. The US does not want to aid militarily a Turkish intervention aimed primarily at the YPG, who have proved the most effective US ally against Isis in Syria. The YPG has at least 25,000 battle-tested ground troops who are backed up by the massive firepower of the US-led air coalition. Ankara is hoping that the new Trump administration will be less cooperative with the Kurds and more so with Turkey.

Isis is using an effective cocktail of tactics similar to those which it employed to slow down the offensive of the Iraqi security forces in east Mosul which took them three months to capture. These tactics include frequent use of suicide bombers driving vehicles packed with explosives (VBIEDs),often especially armoured in Isis workshops so they are difficult to stop.

“Isis uses VBIEDs to disrupt its enemies’ field planning, organisation and morale,” says Mr Gurcan. “With tunnels, Isis maintains mobility, despite air attacks.” As in Mosul, Isis is able to move small mobile units containing snipers, specialists using ant-tank missiles and suicide bombers from house to house without exposing them to superior enemy fire power. The Turkish forces have been unable to encircle al-Bab and cut the main supply route to Raqqa, the de facto capital of Isis in Syria.

Turkey benefited at this week’s peace talks in Astana in Kazakhstan from being one of three foreign powers – the others being Russia and Iran – with ground troops in Syria. It had previously provided crucial aid, sanctuary and a near open border to the Syrian armed opposition. Reinforced by a diplomatic marriages of convenience with both Russia and Iran, Turkey has acquired significant influence over the outcome of the six-year long war in Syria. But the slow military progress at al-Bab shows Turkey’s growing military engagement in Syria is coming at a price – even in its initial phases.

The fighting in and around al-Bab underlines an important weakness of the plans announced at Astana to bolster the current shaky Syrian ceasefire announced on 30 December. The two most powerful rebel military movements, Isis and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, are not included in the ceasefire and have no reason to abide by its terms. On the contrary, Nusra has launched an offensive in west Aleppo province to eliminate rebel groups sympathetic to peace talks and a ceasefire.

Significantly, Isis is showing that, despite claims by the Iraqi and Syrian governments that it is facing imminent defeat, it is still capable of fighting on multiple fronts. It holds west Mosul in Iraq with a population of 750,000, recaptured Palmyra in Syria in mid-December and has repeatedly attacked the Syrian government enclave in the provincial capital of Deir Ezzor over the last ten days. The Russian air force was compelled to launch intense air strikes to help the Syrian army hold the city.

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

Weekend Edition
May 29, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Tim Wise
Protest, Uprisings, and Race War
Nick Pemberton
White Supremacy is the Virus; Police are the Vector
T.J. Coles
What’s NATO Up to These Days? Provoking Russia, Draining Healthcare Budgets and Protecting Its Own from COVID
Benjamin Dangl
Bibles at the Barricades: How the Right Seized Power in Bolivia
Kevin Alexander Gray - Jeffrey St. Clair - JoAnn Wypijewski
There is No Peace: an Incitement to Justice
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Few Good Sadists
Jeff Mackler
The Plague of Racist Cop Murders: Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and the COVID-19 Pandemic
Joshua Frank
In Search of a Lost Socialism
Charles Pierson
Who are the “Wrong Hands” in Yemen?
Andrew Levine
Trump Is Unbeatable in the Race to the Bottom and So Is the GOP
David Schultz
Trump isn’t the Pope and This Ain’t the Middle Ages
Ramzy Baroud
Political Ambiguity or a Doomsday Weapon: Why Abbas Abandoned Oslo
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
A Growing Wave of Bankruptcies Threatens U.S. Recovery
Joseph Natoli
Conditions Close at Hand
N.D. Jayaprakash
No Lessons Learned From Bhopal: the Toxic Chemical Leak at LG Polymers India 
Ron Jacobs
The Odyssey of Elias Demetracopoulos
J.P. Linstroth
Arundhati Roy on Indian Migrant-Worker Oppression and India’s Fateful COVID Crisis
Melvin Goodman
Goodness Gracious, David Ignatius!!
Roger Harris
Blaming the COVID-19 Pandemic on Too Many Humans:  a Critique of Overpopulation Ideology
Sonali Kolhatkar
For America’s Wealthiest, the Pandemic is a Time to Profit
Prabir Purkayastha
U.S. Declares a Vaccine War on the World
David Rosen
Coronavirus and the Telecom Crisis
Paul Buhle
Why Does W.E.B. Du Bois Matter Today?
Mike Bader
The Only Way to Save Grizzlies: Connect Their Habitats
Dave Lindorff
Pandemic Crisis and Recession Can Spark a Fight for Real Change in the US
Nyla Ali Khan
The Sociopolitical and Historical Context That Shaped Kashmiri Women Like My Grandmother in the 1940s
Louis Proyect
Does Neo-Feudalism Define Our Current Epoch?
Ralph Nader
S. David Freeman: Seven Decades of Participating in Power for All of Us
Norman Solomon
Amy Klobuchar, Minneapolis Police and Her VP Quest
Maria Paez Victor
Venezuela in the 2020 Pandemic
Ron Mitchell
Defending Our Public Lands: One Man’s Legacy
Nomi Prins 
The Great Depression, Coronavirus Style: Crashes, Then and Now
Richard C. Gross
About That City on A Hill
Kathleen Wallace
An Oath for Hypocrites
Eve Ottenberg
Common Preservation or Extinction?
Graham Peebles
Air Pollution Mental Illness and Covid-19
Unearned Income for All
Evan Jones
The Machine Stops
Nicky Reid
Proudhon v. Facebook: A Mutualist Solution to Cyber Tyranny
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What is a “Native” Plant in a Changing World?
Shailly Gupta Barnes
Why are Our Leaders Still Putting Their Faith in the Rich?
John Kendall Hawkins
In Search of the Chosŏn People of Lost Korea
Jill Richardson
Tens of Millions of Are Out of Work, Why on Earth is Trump Trying to Cut Food Aid?
Susan Block
Incel Terrorism
David Yearsley
Plague Music