Manbij offers US and Turkey division and resolution
The city of Manbij in northern Syria is a source of severe political tension between the United States and Turkey. It might, however, be the key to normalising relations.
The regime of Bashar Assad withdrew from Manbij in July 2012, making it one of the first large cities in Syria freed from the rule of the government in Damascus. Over the next months, the population of Manbij engaged in one of the more notable rebel efforts: an attempt at self-government.
However, in late 2013, under pressure from the regime’s annihilation tactics and Manbij officials’ mismanagement, space opened for the Islamic State (ISIS). In January 2014, as the rebellion went on the offensive against ISIS, the jihadists consolidated in eastern Aleppo and took over Manbij.
The US-led coalition intervened in Syria against ISIS in September 2014. By early 2016 the United States and its partner force, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), had cleared ISIS from northern Raqqa province and were at the gates of Manbij.
Turkey was furious at US support for the YPG because the group is, as US intelligence has conceded, the Syrian department of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organisation that has been at war with Turkey since 1984.
This is the equivalent, as Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, phrased it, of asking Israel to accept the United States fighting ISIS by installing Hezbollah on the Israeli border.
Still, Turkey supported the May 2016 US-YPG operation to take Manbij from ISIS. Ankara had been promised that the YPG would withdraw east of the Euphrates once it was over and the Arab inhabitants of the city (helped by Turkey-aligned rebels) would be able to govern in the aftermath.
This was, the Wall Street Journal noted, a “meaningful shift for Turkey,” which had “previously threatened to shell [the YPG] if it advanced close to Manbij.” A threat Turkey had followed through on before.
The YPG did not withdraw from Manbij after it fell in August. Instead, it established the Manbij Military Council (MMC) and moved west to link with Afrin, triggering Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operation.
Almost immediately upon the YPG capturing Manbij, “the regime took over the schools and paid the salaries of civil servants,” resident Muhammad Noor said in an open letter to the Daily Beast. In exchange, the regime was allowed to target those who had risen against it.
This model, in which Assad pays for public services and in exchange controls key security nodes, is seen elsewhere in the Rojava territory and is part of a broader trend of increasing integration between the YPG-held areas and Assad’s system.
In March 2017, the YPG openly handed over a belt of territory west of Manbij to pro-Assad forces to protect the YPG from Turkey. Days later, the United States very publicly deployed troops to Manbij to deter Turkey, setting up an odd situation in which one NATO country jointly deployed with Russia to protect a listed terrorist group from another NATO member.
The United States’ reliance on the YPG has been problematic and the situation has established Manbij as a running sore in US-Turkish relations.
The US attempt to run a narrow counterterrorism war without getting entangled in Syria’s broader war failed and created a fragile, potentially explosive, situation. All others focused on the post-ISIS order and the United States’ bet on the YPG left it in the untenable position of being opposed by Iran, Russia and Turkey.
To normalise relations with Turkey, the United States would have to rebalance relations with the YPG, starting with some kind of joint oversight of Manbij, which US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has offered Ankara, as well as support for Turkey controlling the Afrin border, the Washington Post reported.
Will the US follow through and would it reset relations?
Michael Stephens, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, and Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria, agreed the United States acceding to Turkish demands over Manbij would significantly improve relations but that it was unlikely to occur.
Stephens said Manbij “wouldn’t be the end of the story” and Ford said a “buffer strip” in Manbij would go a long way to mollifying the Turks. “I don’t think the Turks insist on all of Rojova being dismantled, at least not right now,” said Ford, noting he has not heard that from Turkish officials.