Damascus spies opportunity in Turkish-American Manbij deal

Manbij is particularly delicate, because all players in the Syrian conflict are based there, standing face-to-face while armed to the teeth.
Sunday 10/06/2018
Syrian soldiers talk next to Russian and Syrian leaders’ portraits at the Abu al-Duhur crossing in Idlib. (AFP)
A window of opportunity. Syrian soldiers talk next to Russian and Syrian leaders’ portraits at the Abu al-Duhur crossing in Idlib. (AFP)

BEIRUT - The Manbij agreement between the Americans and the Turks is being seen as a winning scenario by all sides, Damascus included. It terminates the Kurdish presence in the strategic city, makes room for the relocation of Arab rebels from the Damascus countryside and pressures the Turks to let go of Idlib.

Before being fired last March, former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reached a deal with Ankara over the strategic Syrian town of Manbij, agreeing to co-administer it with the Turkish Army, once freed of Kurdish presence.

That deal was frozen until Mike Pompeo became secretary of state in April, meeting with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on June 4 and agreeing to jump-start the Manbij deal. It basically stipulates that the US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which have been controlling Manbij for two years, will surrender their light arms and cross the Euphrates, towards Kurdish towns and cities east of the river.

“This does not mean we accept that they stay there” said Cavusoglu, who considers the YPG a terrorist organisation. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to hunt down Kurdish militants across the region, saying that, after Manbij, his next step will be Tal Rifaat, north of Aleppo, where Kurdish warriors fled after the fall of Afrin four months ago.

Erdogan cannot do it alone, however. Marching on either Manbij or Tal Rifaat requires meticulous coordination with the Russian Army. Both cities are deep within Russia’s sphere of influence.

Manbij is particularly delicate, because all players in the Syrian conflict are based there, standing face-to-face while armed to the teeth. The city is packed with Kurdish separatists, sleeper cells of Islamic State affiliates, Syrian government troops, Russian soldiers, Iranian special units and nearly 200 American military advisers.

Jennifer Cafarella, the director of intelligence planning at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, said this was a “tactical development, despite the fact that the Turks are claiming this as a larger victory.”

“The Russians do not seem to be concerned, perhaps because it remains to be seen whether and how it is actually implemented,” she said.

The Russians looked the other way, however, when Turkish troops overran Afrin in February and did the same when they took the border cities of Jarabulus and Azaz, and the inland one of al-Bab. Apart from strong condemnation, Syrian troops have not marched north to stop them, with this summer marking the second anniversary of the Turkish occupation of Jarabulus.

“The timetable seems to be six months,” added Cafarella, “during which much could change, including a deal between the YPG and the regime.”

Nothing came out of the Kremlin, Damascus or Tehran when the Manbij deal was announced. Turkish sources told The Arab Weekly that this military presence is not a long-term occupation but it aims solely at reorganising demographics of northern Syria, expelling Kurds and injecting their cities and towns with large numbers of Arabs, mainly refugees and fighters recently evicted from East Ghouta or the Homs countryside.

“When they outnumber the Kurds by 10-1, the Turks can safely withdraw, assured that Kurdish separatism on the border will be mute for a century to come,” the source said.

By no means would this solve the problem, only delay it. Moscow and Damascus would certainly not mind, because this would rid them of any military threat near the Syrian capital and crush Kurdish separatism, which has been a thorn in their backside as well, considered an extension of American influence in the Middle East.

Since entering the Syrian battlefield in September 2015, the crux of Russia’s policy has been its willingness to share influence with all stakeholders concerned, based on one condition: “We don’t trespass on your territory and you don’t trespass on ours.”

In no place has this been more evident than in all Russian-Turkish dealings over Syria. When the Russians wanted to retake Aleppo in December 2016, the Turks looked the other way, not lifting a finger to save their Syrian proxies. Likewise, the Russians did nothing when Turkish troops overran the three border cities earlier that summer. Since then, neither the Turks have tried to push back into Aleppo nor have the Russians into Jarabulus, Azaz, al-Bab, Afrin and, now, Manbij as well.

There is certainly a price for that the Turks would have to pay, if all goes well with the Manbij operation. The Russians and Syrians would love to see them dismantle their 13 checkpoints in Idlib, in north-western Syria, which they had entered via the Astana process in late 2017.

Most of the militants in Idlib are Turkish proxies and, if the Russians are to be accommodated, Erdogan would stand by and watch as the Russian Army finishes them off or relocates those who join the reconciliation process to Turkey-held towns along the border.

Although close to the Turkish border, Idlib cannot be included in the Turkish buffer zone for geographic reasons. That zone needs to keep both the Kurds and the Islamic State away from the border area, giving the Turks enough room to relocate thousands of Syrian refugees living in Turkey since 2011.

Erdogan had once hoped to include Raqqa as well, begging US President Barack Obama to let him march on it but those honours went to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Now, his foreign minister is saying that the Manbij operation can serve as a road map for similar deals in other Kurdish-controlled cities, such as Kobane and Raqqa itself but that remains highly conditional on whether the Russians allow the Manbij co-sharing to succeed.