Manbij could mark collapse of Turkey’s Syria policy
After years of diplomatic and military manoeuvring, the northern Syrian town of Manbij appears to be defining the end of the Syrian puzzle and the war against Islamic State-led fighters in the region.
In a remarkable way, Manbij, 20km from the Syrian-Turkish border, has become a junction where the key players in Syria met. This explains its strategic significance but also its role in determining the winners and losers in the complicated Syrian conflict. Manbij was the destination Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had declared was to be conquered by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), backed by the Turkish armed forces after the seizure of al-Bab.
The local military council of Manbij, a coalition of 36 tribes, seeing the Turkish-led advances as a destabilising move recently transferred control of the town and its surrounding villages in the south-west flank to Syrian regime forces.
At about the same time, Russian forces rapidly deployed at the Mil Wiran-Girhiyok-Al Abash line on the western side and US troops took their positions at the Arab El Hasan-Dadat-Rafiah track on the eastern side. The two powers raised their flags only 10km from each other, a move that marks the most dramatic shift in the Syrian quagmire.
It is clear Russia is building a buffer zone against the FSA, while US ground troops are positioned to block Turkish special operations forces from approaching Manbij from the east.
This seemingly coordinated position has multilayered significance: Washington and Moscow seem to have come to a tacit agreement that the common denominator is to destroy the logistical routes to jihadists and exterminate Islamic State (ISIS) bases and it requires minimum cooperation.
The US side may have given in to the notion that Syrian regime forces retaking control of the Syrian soil helps serves that purpose. US military leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin seem to be in sync with the idea that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose backbone is the Syrian Kurdish Popular Mobilisation Units (YPG), remain an indispensable part of the upcoming Raqqa offensive.
The most powerful consequence of the Manbij episode is the message the situation sends to Erdogan: “What you did with the cleansing of jihadist elements from al-Bab and surroundings was fine but no longer. You are not in sync with us on the endgame, neither with its means. We’ll handle the rest from now on. It is fine if you offer us your support, as long as it remains well-defined and agreed.”
What brought Russians and Americans closer has another common denominator due to what is perceived as strategically erratic anti-Kurdish obstinacy: Turkey will have to be — sooner rather than later — invited in the Syrian territory altogether. In other words, Manbij may have come to mark the collapse of Turkey’s Syria policy, which was based on a regime change, after endless series of twists and turns.
The failure leaves the Erdogan administration with scarce choices: a) it can choose to pull back its troops, which have suffered significant losses, and focus on diplomacy; b) it complies to the US-Russian consensus over the SDF and minimises its support to air strikes in the Raqqa offensive; c) seeing the continuity of complex war in Syria as a strategic choice, it can decide to go on its own.
Given the domestic pressure Erdogan feels at home and the stress he is under to win a key referendum that he hopes will legitimise his de facto authoritarian rule, further adventurism is not at all unthinkable.
Patrick Cockburn noted in the Independent: “Turkey could strike at Raqqa from the north, hoping to slice through Syrian Kurdish territory but this would be a very risky venture likely to be resisted by YPG and opposed by the United States and Russia. Otherwise, Turkey and the two other big supporters of the Syrian armed opposition, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are seeing their influence over events in Syria swiftly diminish.”
The March 7th-8th meetings with US, Turkish and Russian generals in Antalya should provide answers on how Turkey plays its cards. The Köln-based online news site ArtiGercek reported that the chief of Turkish General Staff, Hulusi Akar, insisted on the anti-SDF position, proposing that a joint Turkish-US force along with FSA units enter from Turkey and, carving out a corridor through the YPG-controlled area, proceed towards Raqqa. The proposal, however, was unlikely to win support from the Russian side, let alone the United States.
Erdogan is in an ever weaker position. He can exert some pressure on the Americans over the use of Incirlik base in exchange for having YPG excluded. Yet, he is realising that, after a damaging antagonisation with Putin, which ended with him apologising to Russia, he cannot afford doing so with Trump, whose fierce temperaments are as dominating as his.
The best for Turkey at this stage would be, no doubt, that it focuses only on the humanitarian dimension of the conflict and secures its borders. Then, it is the Kurdish issue: Erdogan’s erratic choices in Syria made a mess out of that policy, and, if he wants a seat at the table where the region’s future is to be designed, he has to make peace with Kurds, at home and along Turkey’s borders.