Yesterday saw the most serious clashes between the Syrian army and rebels supporting the Turkish invasion of northern Syria yet.
The first time such clashes occurred earlier this month Russia reportedly stepped in and ended them without too much bloodshed. This time however, rebels claimed they inflicted 22 dead and destroyed a Syrian army tank.
Seeing how the rebels did not admit to any casualties of their own those numbers are doubtlessly exaggerated, but it goes to show the rebels Turkey brought to al-Bab are spoiling for a fight with pro-government forces.
It is a fight they can not possibly without the Turkish military spearheading their advance, as it has done against ISIS, so their hope would likely be that they can entangle the Turks in their war against Assad.
Wisely Turkey so far declined to get involved in the fighting and Russia stood by as well. Moreover Russia today repeated at the highest level yet (deputy FM) that Syrian Kurds must be present at the next round of Syria peace talks.
Initially Russia went along with a Turkish occupation zone in the north, and barring Kurds from talks, as a way to get Erdogan on board for the idea of real negotiations. However with Erdogan seeming to have cooled on the idea and his occupation zone threatening to become a source of instability the Russians are becoming fed up with both.
Bringing up the Kurds will serve nicely to remind Ankara that if things get out of hand in the north Russia and Damascus can find partners which if less powerful also seem far easier to deal with.
Right on que the Syrian army today broke through more ISIS-held territory to link up with the main Kurdish-held territory in the northeast Syria.
Initially Turkey drove into northern Syria against ISIS to prevent a link up between the Kurdish Afrin enclave in the west and their main base in the east.
No doubt it was agreed in advance this is territory that will be taken by government forces but this never stopped Erdogan’s from publicly casting doubt on where exactly he intended to stop.
With the Syrian army now physically cutting off avenues for further Turkish advances Erdogan’s fantastic offers that Turkey can “liberate” Raqqa from ISIS will sound particularly delusional.
Also, albeit the Kurds have failed to link up their territories in the north militarily normal civilian traffic between their areas is now a real possibility. As buses travel between Afrin and Kurdish-held Sheikh Maqsood neighborhood of Aleppo over army-held Syria so lines can be established connecting Afrin and the east.
Of course, with the Turkish military and the rebels in their employ now boxed in, the million dollar question is where do they go from here?
Will Ankara wisely declare al-Bab was its final objective and do little more? Will it now launch an offensive against the Kurds as it has promised many times before courting trouble with the US? Or will it allow itself to become entangled in rebel’s squabbles with Damascus which would threaten its understanding with Russia?
Complicating this further is that Erdogan awaits a referendum in April where he will seek greater powers. If he is to win he will need the votes of nationalists and Islamists who expect a muscular posture from him in Syria.