- The Washington Times - Monday, February 6, 2017

Syrian and Turkish forces have effectively surrounded the key city of al-Bab, a critical waypoint for the Islamic State for moving fighters, weapons and supplies into the terrorist group’s de facto capital of Raqqa, setting the stage for the eventual assault on the group’s final stronghold in the region.

Government forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have reportedly taken control of the high ground surrounding the main thoroughfare linking al-Bab to Raqqa, located along the southeast border of the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday.

The push comes as Iraqi, Kurdish and U.S. coalition forces make slow but steady progress in the campaign to drive the Islamic State out of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and the terrorist group’s biggest holding in the country.

New U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in a report to the Security Council Monday, said the once-expanding terrorist group has sustained major territorial losses, although it remains a dangerous force both in its homeland, in countries around the Middle East and as a sponsor of attacks in the West.

The Islamic State has lost “large numbers of fighters and territory,” which, “together with the group’s deteriorating financial situation, have considerably reduced its draw for foreign terrorist fighters,” Mr. Guterres said.

Once openly proclaiming a new Islamist “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State has increasingly had to turn to “more covert methods, such as the use of the dark web, encryption and messengers” to recruit new fighters and plan new missions, the U.N. chief said.

Al-Bab, which has been under the control of Islamic State — also called ISIS or ISIL — for the last two years, has been the focal point of a stalled unilateral Turkish offensive into Syria that began in August. Turkish-trained militia groups have now surrounded the Islamic State-controlled city along its northern, eastern and western borders, the monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Monday.

Syrian commanders told state-run media outlets that their forces were now within striking distance of the Syrian village of Tadif, located less than a mile from al-Bab’s southern city limits and just 20 miles east of Raqqa.

The campaign may prove as significant politically as it has militarily, cementing a major shift in the dynamics of the struggle sparked by the bloody six-year civil war against the government of Mr. Assad.

The most recent al-Bab advance marks the first time Syrian government forces have participated in any anti-Islamic State effort led by either U.S. or Turkish-backed forces. Both Ankara and Washington had previously demanded Mr. Assad step down as part of any lasting solution to the war.

The fall of al-Bab, combined with Islamic State’s increasingly tenuous hold on Mosul, would leave Raqqa as the terror group’s only major piece of territory in the Middle East — a far cry from the broad swaths of territory Islamic State controlled at the height of its power in 2014.

But the role of Syrian regime forces in the fight may require U.S. commanders to work with an emboldened Assad regime even as anti-government rebel forces once backed by the Obama administration face territorial losses and bitter internal divisions.

Critical step toward Raqqa

Securing al-Bab from Islamic State forces is seen as a critical step toward the isolation and eventual assault on Raqqa by American-backed Syrian paramilitary forces, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has thus far refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the SDF offensive, since the mostly Arab coalition under the SDF banner includes members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit, also known as YPG. Ankara considered the YPG, the armed faction of the Kurdish Worker’s Party, or PKK, a terrorist organization responsible for multiple attacks against military and police targets inside Turkey.

American commanders in the region had initially refused to provide air support to the Turkish offensive in al-Bab, saying Ankara’s actions were not in conjunction with the U.S. and coalition effort.

But they reversed course in January after reports emerged that Ankara was looking to Russian warplanes to fill the void. Moscow’s airpower also proved vital to Mr. Assad’s forces’ efforts to stamp out opposition forces battling the regime over the last six years.

Damascus’ motivations for inserting its forces into the fight for al-Bab remain unclear, but Mr. Assad’s involvement in the offensive could put the Trump administration in the uncomfortable position of weighing a Syrian role in the upcoming climactic battle for Raqqa.

Mr. Trump has already upended U.S. views on the Syrian conflict by floating the idea of an open collaboration with Russia to defeat Islamic State in Syria. One more complication: Iranian units are fighting alongside Mr. Assad’s troops inside Syria against Islamic State.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer in January acknowledged U.S. policy toward Russia in Syria was still developing, but added that Mr. Trump has talked openly of his willingness to work with any international partner to defeat the Islamic State.

“I think if there’s a way that we can combat ISIS with any country, whether it’s Russia or anyone else, and we have a shared national interest in that, sure, we’ll take it,” he said.

Moscow upped the ante later that month, claiming it had carried out several airstrikes against Islamic State targets in al-Bab based on intelligence provided by U.S. and coalition forces. The Pentagon vehemently denied such claims, insisting that the only military tie between Moscow and Washington is a “deconfliction” pact ensuring that American and Russian aircraft stay out of each other’s way in the skies above Syria.

Syria’s entry into the fight for al-Bab could also be seen as an effort by Moscow to bypass efforts by Turkey, a NATO ally, to secure its own role in the assault on Raqqa.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. officer in Iraq and Syria, said earlier this month he planned to “circle back” with his Turkish counterpart to explore possible joint scenarios in which Washington and Ankara’s forces could participate in the pending attack on Raqqa.

But Russia antagonized Turkish leaders earlier this month, calling for “cultural autonomy” for ethnic Syrian Kurds in a draft version of a new postwar constitution for Syria.

The draft document, introduced during the latest round of Syrian peace talks between regime leaders and Syrian rebel factions in Astana, Kazakhstan, also strengthens and centralizes “united, inviolable and indivisible” control of the state under President Assad’s regime while outlawing “the organization of military or paramilitary activities outside of state authority.”

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