On Aug. 24, 2016, Turkey declared that is was exercising its rights of self-defense codified under the UN Charter Article 51, and launched Operation Euphrates Shield. A National Security Council press release (Nov. 30, 2016) stated that the operation’s objectives were to maintain border security and confront Daesh terrorism within the framework of the UN charter; it also emphasized that the PKK terrorist organization, as well as its affiliates the PYD/YPG, will not be allowed to establish a corridor of terror on Turkey’s doorstep.
The campaign, especially in its initial stages, captured its operational targets rapidly starting from Jarablus. Operation Euphrates Shield cleared an area of 1,100 square kilometers within its first 50 days, and subsequently, secured an area of 2,000 square kilometers at the time of writing. In October-November 2016, capture of the territories to the east of Azaz-Mare, and Dabiq – a center of resistance for Daesh’s morale and motivation – has played an important part in paving the way towards Al-Bab. Gaining this depth has been very important for Turkey’s defense in preventing Daesh’s rocket attacks, and for overcoming the Daesh terror threat posed by rockets launched by mobile platforms.
PKK's corridor plan foiled
Furthermore, the shift of the operation southwards following the military achievements in Dabiq has been a critical maneuver in hindering the efforts of the PKK terrorist organization, and its PYD/YPG affiliates, aimed at linking the eastern territories under their de facto control with Afrin in the west. On the other hand, as Euphrates Shield reached its Al-Bab stage in November-December 2016, there have been changes in the characteristics of the conflict which brought along increases in Turkish casualties.
The above operational advancements have been fairly satisfactory in terms of operational tempo and military-geostrategic progress. Furthermore, Ankara’s enhancement of its area of influence in northern Syria has visibly paid off with more room for diplomatic maneuvering. This was mainly due to the fact that Al-Bab has remained a Daesh stronghold west of the Euphrates River. Moreover, the slowdown of anti-Daesh coalition operations in Raqqa and Mosul has made it easier for the terrorist organization to relocate its forces. In addition, the inability to besiege Al-Bab and destroy Daesh’s lines of communication completely is among other factors that have complicated the situation.
Against the transforming threat, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) has altered its force generation strategy for Operation Euphrates Shield and deployed elements from its elite units that have gained experience in counter-terrorism operations against the PKK.
Analysis of the Al-Bab campaign
The Al-Bab campaign will primarily consist of two main combat phases, and a subsequent “holding the town” phase. The first combat phase refers to the current situation in which Daesh is showing an aggressive resistance in immediate areas surrounding Al-Bab, whereas the second combat phase would begin after this resistance is broken. Most probably, the second combat phase will consist of clashes through which the terrorist organization aims to increase the costs of the campaign by using disruptive means such as improvised explosive devices (IED) and tunnels, and attempts to provoke the local populace.
The limited amount of literature on Daesh’s military strategy suggests that while the terrorist organization is very lethal at the tactical level, it has major vulnerabilities in defending the territory it holds at the operational level. These sources argue that the vulnerabilities at the operational level stem from the differences in the composition of the groups that make up Daesh (e.g. Salafist radicals, former military personnel of the Iraqi Baathist regime, local militias and foreign terrorists), and emphasize that these differences result in ruptures between the strategic and tactical levels. Between January 2015 and December 2016, the terrorist organization lost approximately 25 percent of the territory it held, and witnessed a 16 percent loss in 2016 alone.
Daesh’s terror tactics
Military experience gained in combating Daesh’s presence in Iraq has shown that contrary to expectations, the organization does not portray a “resist until the last man” approach in defenses. Instead of defending urban areas to the last street, Daesh adopts a tactical approach that aims to increase the lethality rate as much as possible by using snipers, booby-trapped households, and improvised explosive decides – especially vehicle-borne IEDs. Lessons learned, especially in Ramadi, indicate that the rural terrain surrounding urban areas is where Daesh puts up the most resistance.
Another operational vulnerability that Daesh shows when on defense is its obsession with offensives, and the heavy casualties it suffers by conducting poorly planned offensives when facing heavy firepower. Nonetheless, VBIEDs used in such poorly planned offensives still pose a threat and merit caution.
It is not possible to gather the exact number of Daesh terrorists present in Al-Bab through open-source information. On the other hand, the slowing pace of the campaigns in Raqqa and Mosul may have given the terrorist organization some freedom of movement to fortify Al-Bab. Moreover, estimates on Daesh elements in the area suggest that the number of suicide bombers may be in the hundreds, and the terrorist organization’s web of relations with the local population formed through marriage and ideological oppression pose further challenges to military operations.
Force generation issues
Due to regional security factors and the changes in the characteristics of the conflict, Ankara has overhauled the composition of its military forces deployed for the campaign. Operation Euphrates Shield was planned as a joint operation from its outset with the participation of mechanized infantry, armored and artillery units, unmanned aerial vehicles, and air force platforms, as well as engineering and signal units. Turkey’s successful use of its combat UAV platforms – Bayraktar TB-2 – in such a critical campaign is not only significant for the result of the operations, but also for the future of Turkish defense industry. Although manned, fixed-wing platforms (e.g. F-16s) have been heavily relied upon due to operational conditions, lessons learned through Operation Euphrates Shield will remain essential for Turkey’s experience on combat UAVs.
The Jarablus campaign, especially in its initial phase, has fully displayed the joint operations characteristics of Operation Euphrates Shield, with fire-support provided by artillery and multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) culminating in swift tactical gains by the armored and mechanized units, and with air force platforms making successful use of the target acquisition provided by special forces elements. After the success in Jarablus, the campaign quickly turned westwards and took over Cobanbey and Dabiq, a Daesh stronghold. After the second week of November 2016, press sources reported that the Turkish Air Force started to target defensive positions and command and control centers belonging to Daesh. Airstrikes on these targets, and troop concentrations in surrounding towns, have also signaled the launch of land operations on Al-Bab.
The Al-Bab campaign has also been influenced by developments related to the political-military framework of Operation Euphrates Shield, including publicized differences of opinion between Turkey and the U.S.-led anti-Daesh coalition. It is understood that a diplomatic understanding was reached with Washington and Moscow for the initial phase of the operation. U.S. sources claim that this preliminary agreement would have allowed Turkey to expand up to a 20-25 kilometer area from its border. But Ankara decided to move beyond this agreed framework in the direction of Al-Bab and initiate military operations to capture the town. Ankara wanted Al-Bab and its surrounding region to eventually remain under the control of pro-Turkish forces. Ankara feared that an anti-Daesh coalition-led intervention would have allowed the PYD and other non-Turkey friendly entities to strengthen their presence in this region.
It can be said that for this reason the campaign was initiated before any possible Raqqa operation by the anti-Daesh coalition. This lack of coordination is also a testimony to the trust deficit between Turkey and the U.S. over the Syrian context, most prominently due to the differing stances on the PYD/YPG. It is evaluated that this absence of coordination has also resulted in military disadvantages. The most important disadvantage was the lack of close air support, as well as ISTAR, from the coalition. Another handicap is that since the campaign was not undertaken simultaneously with the Raqqa operations, Daesh does not need to divide its forces to defend the two provinces at the same time. The initiation of the Raqqa campaign by coalition forces could have mitigated the pressure that the Turkish forces face in Al-Bab.
In the medium-term, the strengthening of Turkey’s diplomatic position will depend as much on its ability to establish a trusting relationship with the U.S. as the maintenance of the understanding it reached with Russia. This balancing act would give Turkey more influence over the fate of peacemaking efforts in Syria. While successful completion of the Al-Bab campaign will take time, it is well within Turkey’s capabilities. Such an achievement would mark an important success for a joint military operation in urbanized terrain against non-state threats. But ultimately, consolidating military success into a political achievement will require a more astute use of diplomatic capabilities and a more realistic identification of the political objectives of this military campaign.