Five years after Syrians started to rise up against the brutal dictatorship of President Bashar Al-Assad, the Syrian Civil War rages on across this land of ancient history from Palmyra to Aleppo to Damascus.
Libertarian Presidential Candidate Gary Johnson raised many eyebrows when he was caught completely off guard when asked about the siege of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, seemingly unaware of Aleppo’s importance and perhaps even existence.
Aleppo, however, is not just Syria’s largest city. It is a province in northwest Syria, home to many cities. To the northeast lies a smaller city by the name of Al-Bab.
Al-Bab is not a particularly large city. Its population in 2004 was estimated around 63,000, and it is likely less than that today as it is currently under the occupation of Islamic State.
What makes Al-Bab significant, though, is its enormous strategic importance to multiple different factions in the Syrian Civil War.
As mentioned before, Al-Bab is under the control of the Islamic State. To the immediate north, Free Syrian Army forces backed by the Republic of Turkey sit only a few kilometers away, waiting to advance on the city as a main objective of the “Euphrates Shield” operation. While Ankara has carved out a sizable chunk of land in Syria for their forces, their forces have been very inconsistent in their abilities and have few friends in the region.
To the south lies the Syrian Arab Army, the forces to which President Al-Assad is Commander-in-Chief.
The Syrian Arab Army is arguably one of the stronger players in this war, but five years of combat across Syria against various different adversaries has left the fighting force exhausted and even with Russian assistance, the SAA is still bogged down in their siege of Aleppo and has made little advances otherwise. To the far east, the besieged city of Deir-Ez-Zor lies surrounded by Islamic State and in real danger of being sieged and taken over.
To both the east and west lies another player still, the Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF, as they are often abbreviated to, is a broad coalition of Kurds, Arabs, some Turkmens, Christians, and Armenians which have rallied in the country’s north. The SDF proclaimed a large victory in the nearby city of Manbij a few months ago, but has been limited and careful in their recent campaigns with the Turkish-allied FSA’s marching towards the same objective. If the Syrian Democratic Forces manage to siege and capture the city of Al-Bab, they will have stuck a hell of a monkey wrench into Turkish ambitions in the region and put their biggest objective-carving out a united region of Syria for the Kurdish minority not under Assad’s control. While Kurdish units in the SDF (known as the People’s Protection Units and by the Kurdish initials YPG) have withdrawn from the region on orders from Turkey and the United States, they remain a factor in the Syrian Democratic Forces approaching from the west and may be able to connect their regions into one entity, possibly setting the stage for a federal region similar to that in northern Iraq.
The various groups in this civil war are, unsurprisingly, generally unfriendly towards each other.
The Turkish-backed FSA forces are hostile to the SDF and Assad’s SAA, and vice versa.
The SDF, while not outright hostile to the SAA, has a relationship of tense neutrality with Assad’s forces and even if limited cooperation takes place between the two parties as has happened in the past, that does not mean they will continue to cooperate. Some have speculated that the SAA and SDF may end up fighting against each other if Islamic State and the FSA are defeated as Assad has repeatedly refused to entertain plans for a new federal Syria similar to the Iraqi setup after 2003.
While the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army forces fly the same green, white, and black flag of the FSA in other areas, they are largely Islamist and answer to Turkish forces rather than towards a broader desire to liberate Syria from Assad’s grip. These forces have not come in contact with Assad’s forces and will likely avoid doing so as direct conflict would drag Turkey farther into the conflict than it wants to be. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also seems more interested in preventing the Kurds and their allies from establishing a united entity in Syria as such an entity would likely allow the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK to operate and undermine Turkey.
The Kurdish forces in Syria are often doted on by Western media because they are secular, somewhat democratic and have feminist leanings as women frequently fight alongside men in combat. However, the YPG, as they are known, is closely related to the PKK in Turkey and despite the fact that the PKK does not instill the same fear as Islamic fundamentalist terrorists seem to, it is still called a terrorist group for a reason and Ankara is understandably worried about this.
Islamic State is retreating on all its different fronts and probably will not retain control of Al-Bab once they are engaged in the city limits. Who takes it from them is still unclear, but the strong adversarial relationships between the various different groups surrounding the city is definite cause for worry.
Iraq, meanwhile, has managed to start its advance into Mosul, Islamic State’s last and by far the largest stronghold in the city. If Mosul is retaken by the Iraqi Security Forces, the Islamic State will be severely weakened and the country may evict the terrorists from their borders by the Spring of 2017. Syria, unfortunately, looks like it will endure war for considerably longer unless some sort of comprehensive peace deal can be worked out, but that seems quite unlikely.