Despite Manbij deal, Turkey charts independent course in Syria

The Manbij road map does not solve the long-standing differences between the US and Turkey about the nature of the YPG and its role in northern Syria.
Sunday 10/06/2018
On shaky ground. A Syrian Manbij Military Council soldier passes a US position near the tense front line with Turkey-backed fighters in Manbij, last April.  (AP)
On shaky ground. A Syrian Manbij Military Council soldier passes a US position near the tense front line with Turkey-backed fighters in Manbij, last April. (AP)

WASHINGTON - Differences remain between the United States and Turkey over their approaches in northern Syria as questions are raised about an agreement regarding a strategically important city, seen as an accord designed to remove a major stumbling block in US-Turkish relations.

During a June 4 meeting in Washington, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu endorsed a “road map” for the city of Manbij. The accord followed months of tension between the two countries as Turkey criticised US support for Syrian Kurdish rebels of the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Under the plan, YPG units are to withdraw from Manbij, which they captured from the Islamic State (ISIS) two years ago, and move their forces east of the Euphrates River. Joint US-Turkish patrols will provide security after the YPG pulls out. In a joint statement, Pompeo and Cavusoglu stressed their commitment to the implementation of the plan, “reflecting agreement to closely follow developments on the ground.” The YPG confirmed the planned withdrawal but said its forces would be back in Manbij “should it be needed.”

The agreement demonstrates Turkey’s determination to remain a player in northern Syria. Ankara argues that regions of Kurdish self-rule along its 900km border with Syria represent a threat to its national security and that it wants to make sure no militant group can form a base there. Turkey has sent troops into the Afrin and Jarabulus areas in northern Syria to drive out Kurdish forces and says it is ready to launch a cross-border operation into the Sinjar region of northern Iraq to cut support lines between the YPG and Kurdish rebels in Iraq.

“Right now, we are in Syria, we are in Afrin and Jarabulus,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a June 5 rally for parliamentary and presidential elections. “If necessary, we will go into Sinjar in northern Iraq.”

Several of Erdogan’s ministers have suggested that a military operation against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) headquarters in the Qandil Mountains in Iraq, 150km south of the Turkish border, could be imminent. “Everything could happen anytime,” government spokesman Bekir Bozdag said.

Turkey says the YPG is a Syrian affiliate of the PKK, which is regarded a terrorist group by Ankara, the United States and much of the international community. Given the US support for the YPG, the Turkish intervention into Afrin earlier this year raised the spectre of a US-Turkish confrontation over Manbij, about 100km to the east, where US special forces are deployed.

While US officials insisted June 5 that the Manbij agreement was a “conditions-based arrangement” and that the new city administration should be run “by locals who are mutually agreeable,” Turkey painted a different picture. Cavusoglu said preparations for the end of YPG rule in Manbij would begin by June 15, while the process of removing YPG structures from the city and the establishment of a new administration and security arrangements would be completed in less than six months. YPG fighters would give up their weapons before leaving Manbij, the Turkish minister said.

The YPG is not prepared to go along with the Turkish script. Following a visit by a US delegation in Manbij, the Manbij Military Council said — just three days after Pompeo and Cavusoglu met in Washington 00 that no Turkish troops would be allowed to enter the city. A senior Kurdish official told the Associated Press that the US delegation had assured the Kurdish side that no Turkish soldiers would patrol “inside the town.”

The Manbij road map also does not solve the long-standing differences between the United States and Turkey about the nature of the YPG and its role in northern Syria. Ankara wants to drive the Kurdish fighters out of the region completely but the United States sticks with the militia as a partner in the fight against ISIS. A day after he met with Cavusoglu about Manbij, Pompeo issued a statement praising an operation by the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS in the north-eastern Syrian village of Dashisha.

New trouble could be just around the corner. Cavusoglu signalled that Turkey wants to push the YPG out of regions east of the Euphrates. He said the Manbij model could be applied in other Syrian cities under YPG control, such as Raqqa and Kobane, but suggested that the United States might not support such an approach. “We will see the US stance when the time comes,” he said.

Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish lawmaker and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think-tank in Washington, said Turkey’s elections were the reason for the spin Ankara is putting on the Manbij agreement. “The Turkish government hopes that Cavusoglu’s photo op with Pompeo and his ostensible success in wringing concession from Washington will boost the ruling Justice and Development Party’s popularity in the run-up to June 24 elections,” Erdemir wrote via e-mail in response to questions.

Similarly, the sabre-rattling concerning Iraq is also down to electioneering, Erdemir added, referring to polls suggesting that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party could lose its parliamentary majority.

“Erdogan hopes that the talk of a possible military campaign against Qandil 20 days before the snap elections could attract nationalist votes and re-energise his lethargic campaign,” Erdemir wrote. “If the polls continue to indicate that the Turkish opposition will gain the parliamentary majority in the June 24 elections, the rally ‘round the flag effect of a cross-border military operation might be Erdogan’s last resort to turn the tide.”