Al Bab, the gate to Aleppo, is the new flash point between Turks, Syrians and Kurds

As Damascus celebrated the recapture of Syria’s second largest city, the Turks struck the city’s outskirts, killing 29 civilians, including eight children. Daesh fighters suffer no casualties. Al Bab is the price paid to Turkey to get Jihadis and rebels out of east Aleppo.

Aleppo (AsiaNews) – As the bells of Aleppo’s Armenian Mother of God Cathedral rang out in celebration for the first time in five years and as prayers of thanksgiving rose from altars for the new-found peace after the departure of the last convoy of Jihadis from the city’s eastern sector, the Turkish air force bombed the town of Al Bab, killing 29 civilians, including eight children.

According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of local contacts, many people are still missing under the rubble and the death toll can be expected to be far higher than announced so far. No Daesh* fighter was killed in Turkish air raids though, only civilians, this despite Ankara’s claim that "everything has been done to avoid civilian casualties."

For the Arab chroniclers of the Middle Ages, "Al Bab is the Achilles heel of Aleppo. Whoever controls it controls Aleppo, and whoever controls Aleppo controls Syria, and whoever controls Syria controls the entire fertile Middle East."

Al Bab, which means "the Gate" in Arabic, is in fact the door to Aleppo. Located some 30 Km from the border with Turkey, it is Daesh’s last stronghold in the Province Aleppo.

Syrian Observatory director Abdel Rahman reports that Al Bab is surrounded by Turkey’s invading troops, along with rebel groups "from the east, the north and from the west." The Kurds too are involved in the city’s conquest, invasion or liberation from the hands of the Islamic State, who at Al Bab are paving the way for a Syrian Kurdistan that Turkey wants to prevent. The latter is a real obsession for Ankara, whose aim is to annex northern Syria and Iraq. Ankara’s goal is to use its control of Al Bab to get a place at the table of future peace talks on Syria. The rightful owner, the Syrian State, is also aware that it could not guarantee a safe and long-lasting peace in Aleppo without taking back Al Bab.

Turkish activism on this front shows that something has changed. About a month ago, Turkey’s invading forces were met for the first time by the Syrian air force, in a stern warning not to cross a red line by heading towards Al Bab. Syria could not have bombed Turkish troops without Russian approval (a year after a Russian fighter place was shot down by the Turks), nor could Turkey advance to take Al Bab without Moscow’s approval.

What if ceding control of Al Bab to Ankara was the price to persuade jihadists and rebels (known to be led from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia) to evacuate Aleppo East? This is on everyone's lips today in Aleppo, right after news spread of the liberation of the country’s second-largest city.

Syria has repeatedly said that any Turkish invasion of Al Bab would have catastrophic consequences for regional and world peace, for which Ankara alone should be held responsible. However, in this case leaders in Damascus have been silent, still drunk perhaps from their victory in Aleppo. All the while, Russians, Iranians and Turks were meeting and discussing the evacuation of the Jihadis and rebels from Aleppo and the future of the city as well as that of Al Bab, whose fate cannot be divorced from that of Aleppo. Likewise, the UN was being presented with a proposal to send observers, and talks were underway on an investigation into war crimes committed in Aleppo, a prelude to similar actions across Syria and the start of an international trial for war crimes perpetrated in the country.

Who might be in control of Al Bab? The answer cannot wait any longer. With the Kurds discarded by the power transition in Washington, the competition remains open between two contenders: the legitimate Syrian regular army or invading Turkish troops under the legal guise of the men flying the flag of the much-vaunted but never seen Free Syrian Army. A banner under which Ankara is trying to reconcile all the Jihadis it managed to evacuate from Aleppo to Idlib.

Yesterday Turkish President Erdogan talked again about the 1920 Sevres International Peace Conference, which formalised the partition of the Ottoman Empire. If “we stop, we will find ourselves facing Sevres conditions,” he said, linking the fight against terrorism to Turkey’s ‘Euphrates shield’ operation and Turkish invasion of northern Syria. "We cannot keep silent before those who constantly threaten our national security, and now we are doing what is necessary towards them."

On Wednesday, 14 Turkish soldiers were killed in Al Bab by three explosive-filled cars driven by suicide bombers. According to Daesh’s news agency "men with Turkish special forces fled from Al Bab".

Turkish Defence Minister Fikri Isik said that at least a thousand Islamic State men and about 300 Kurdish YPG fighters "have been killed since Turkish intervention". However, the information could not be confirmed from other independent sources. (PB)

* Arabic acronym for the Islamic State