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Can Turkey take on Raqqa before concluding al-Bab?

Turkey is expanding its targets by proposing to partner with the United States at Raqqa before ending its al-Bab operation, a course that is laden with traps.
Turkish military vehicles drive in the Syrian rebel-held town of al-Rai, as they head towards the northern Syrian town of al-Bab, Syria January 9, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi - RTX2Y60D

Turkey took over the Syrian border town of Jarablus from the Islamic State (IS) with not much effort in August 2016, with the approval of Moscow. Today, however, it is sustaining heavy casualties from unexpected stiff resistance at al-Bab. Nevertheless, Ankara is making strong efforts to participate in an operation to take Raqqa.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke in a 45-minute phone call with US President Donald Trump on Feb. 7, just 18 days after Trump took office. Meanwhile, new CIA Director Michael Pompeo made his first trip to Turkey and received the details of Turkey’s proposal.

The Turkish plan — the same as it was during President Barack Obama's time — is based on assaulting Raqqa without Kurdish assistance. According to details leaked to the Turkish media about these meetings, the key elements of the plan are as follows:

  • Ankara proposes to contribute Turkish special forces to the Raqqa operation, to persuade the United States to give up its cooperation with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). Turkish special forces are currently performing coordination, reconnaissance and target-acquisition actions at al-Bab and supposedly could contribute 150-200 personnel to the Raqqa operation.

  • After al-Bab is captured, selected elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) could be deployed to Raqqa.

  • Arab personnel of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) could be separated from the YPG elements that constitute the core of that force, and a 10,000-strong army could be set up with those redeployed from al-Bab.

  • A 1,930-square-mile area could be cleared in the Azaz-Jarablus-al-Bab triangle and opened for civilians to settle there.

Reports claim Trump saw merit in the plan, which Turkey has been advocating for some time, and asked teams from both countries to work on it.

The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have been steadily making announcements with generous numbers on targets hit and IS militants killed. This unconfirmed picture that IS is being torn to pieces cannot, however, conceal the reality of 64 Turkish soldiers killed. We don’t know how many tanks and armored vehicles the TSK has lost at al-Bab.

For Turkey's Raqqa plan to be taken seriously, the TSK first has to achieve its objectives at al-Bab. According to the Turkish media, al-Bab is almost liberated, and if you listen to Erdogan, the road is open for the Turkish army to roll on. TSK and FSA elements, which have been struggling at al-Bab for 100 days now, have so far captured some stretches of road to the north, a hospital, Aqil Hill, and the towns of Kabasin and Bzaa.

On the day Pompeo began establishing his contacts in Ankara, and while the media was reporting "the FSA entered al-Bab supported by the TSK," two events reminded everyone once again what a minefield Operation Euphrates Shield has become. A Russian airstrike hit a building used by Turkish soldiers, killing four and wounding 10. To avoid new tension, both sides said the event was an accident. Parties decided to set up a joint commission to investigate.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peshkov said, “Unfortunately, as our military was conducting an air attack against terrorists, it was following the coordinates supplied by our Turkish partners. There should not have been any Turkish soldiers at those coordinates; hence, [it was] an unintentional attack.”

Some media in Turkey, however, interpreted the attack as a Russian warning to Turkey about trying to enter a partnership with the United States at Raqqa.

In the second major development, the Syrian Human Rights Observatory reported that the Syrian army and Turkish forces clashed northwest of al-Bab. Muhammed Abdullah, a political notable who works with the groups Turkey supports, said five Turkish soldiers were wounded and two armored vehicles were destroyed. Turkish officials kept silent.

The risk of potential confrontations between the two forces is increasing. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim was aware of the risk of clashing with the Syrian army when he said, “It is true that regime forces are advancing. By coordinating with Russia we are taking the necessary steps to avoid clashes with them.”

Leaving aside whether the bombing of Turkish troops was an accident, this reality must be acknowledged: It would be naive to expect Russia, which controls the airspace, to tolerate a US-Turkey partnership formed without Moscow's blessing.

The current situation at al-Bab, while amplifying doubts of Turkey’s control of the ground, did not stop Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu from adding Iraq to Turkey’s targets, augmenting Ankara’s ambitions. “Trump and Erdogan last night had an extremely useful phone conversation. One of the topics was fighting [IS], which is our common goal. In the coming days, [IS] has three critical towns [in which it has to defend itself]: al-Bab, Raqqa and Mosul [in Iraq]. They [the presidents] expressed determination to oust [IS] from these towns," Cavusoglu said.

He added, "That is why the operation at al-Bab must be completed soon. The TSK and the FSA made serious strides at al-Bab; the next target is Raqqa. The Raqqa operation must be conducted by the right forces. We said from the outset that our special forces can participate. We have to use them.”

When the going is so tough in Syria, there is no indication that the United States will enter a partnership with Turkey at Mosul. Mosul, with its local and regional dynamics, is a different matter altogether.

Several factors could hamper the success of an operation based solely on the Arab elements of the SDF and Turkey-supported groups:

  • As the TSK and the FSA can't yet cope with IS at al-Bab, what are the odds of their success at Raqqa, a much bigger city? Former US Ambassador to Iraq and Turkey James Jeffrey says for the United States to achieve success it has to work with Russia, Iran and Syria. He notes the United States has to devise a way to have the SDF and Turkish forces cooperate in the field.

  • Although Trump might favorably consider the Turkish proposal for Raqqa, for him to give up the cooperation with the Kurds initiated by Obama, he would need powerful alternatives. The Turkish proposal does not fulfill that requirement. The Pentagon still needs the combat and organizational capacities of the Kurds on the ground.

  • The Kurdish issue that emerged with US air support to the YPG at Kobani, and then with small deliveries of weapons, is expanding. Some observers believe Washington wants a long-term partnership with Syria's Kurds, as it once had with the Kurds in northern Iraq. For Turkey, this means that for a new element of cooperation between Ankara and Washington, Ankara will have to rethink its approach to the Syrian Kurds after the vote on its constitutional referendum set for April 16.

  • As for in the field, the Turkish option can’t work unless the road to Raqqa is secured. Even if the TSK/FSA fully take over al-Bab, the road to Raqqa is now under Syrian army control; hence, a decision has to be made whether to cooperate with that army or fight it. Neither Damascus nor Moscow are willing to grant an easy victory to the United States and Turkey, when Raqqa is seen as leverage to shape the future of Syria.

On possible routes to Raqqa that Turkey could move on, there are the Kurds. If there is cooperation with the Kurds, the TSK could reach Raqqa via Kobani or Tell Abyad. Turkey had cooperated with the YPG to evacuate the Tomb of Suleiman Shah in 2015. But Raqqa requires a spirit of cooperation Ankara is not ready for.

Discussions of all these options often overlook the potential spoiler effect of Iran, which provides the Syrian army with massive support — as much as Russia supplies.

The perils of a Raqqa operation for Turkey are abundant. And let's not forget the looming debate about what will happen after Raqqa is liberated. As with Mosul, although all the elements needed for a successful field operation might be available, one must consider that the "day-after" scenario could upend the entire process.

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