Tensions flare in Manbij amid rising confusion
CAMBRIDGE, England- The city of Manbij, in Aleppo governorate, has taken on uncommon importance. Manbij falls within territory controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose main component is the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The SDF is the primary proxy of the United States in Syria. The United States has defended SDF detachments and bases from attack by the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS) and fighters allied to the regime of Bashar Assad.
Manbij is run by military and civilian councils within the SDF, primarily the Manbij Military Council (MMC), nominally independent of the YPG.
Turkey maintains that the MMC and the YPG are agents of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the European Union and the United States. The PKK has fought a guerrilla war against Turkey for years and is accused of attempting to establish a statelet in northern Syria from which it could conduct a campaign of terror inside Turkey.
The SDF captured Manbij from ISIS in 2016, after which it proved a point of contention among members of the global coalition ranged against the terror group.
Both Turkey and the SDF see control of Manbij as a strategic imperative. The MMC maintains that the city is vital to projecting the strength of the Kurdish federal project, Rojava, in Aleppo province.
Turkish leaders argue those they consider fronts for the PKK have no right to Manbij. Turkey maintains that the SDF had little right to take Manbij and has less to hold on to it now.
Strategic decisions can no longer be justified by their anti-ISIS expediency. Turkey hopes it can convince the United States that Manbij cannot remain in Kurdish hands.
Kaan Ozguney, a Turkish analyst, said via e-mail that the “PKK has a lot more leverage East of the Euphrates River and, broadly speaking, has the ability to blackmail the US.”
Two Turkish campaigns — Operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch — have secured the country’s border with Syria and captured significant territory from ISIS and the YPG.
Those campaigns expanded Turkish influence and the power of its rebel allies in Syria’s north. They gave new impetus to Turkish threats about overtaking Manbij, which became the target of pointed Turkish rhetoric after the rapid capture of Afrin from the YPG.
This situation is the product of failures in the campaign against ISIS, which, as the militants retreated and reconfigured into an insurgency, lacked purpose and direction.
Nominal allies against ISIS are now fighting each other. During Turkey’s Afrin offensive, SDF fighters defected to combat a NATO ally of its American backer. Some SDF militias, including Kurdish and Arab groups, switched their focus from fighting ISIS to fighting Turkey.
The US military reluctantly in March instituted what it called an “operational pause” in eastern Syria, during which ground operations against ISIS halted.
This was a product of general chaos in US policy. The United States largely backs the YPG and its affiliates but periodically threatens a disruptive change in approach.
Most recently, this has come from the mouth of US President Donald Trump, who said, in a campaign-style rally, that he would like to pull out of Syria entirely. He said this could happen soon. Even recent US action against the Assad regime does not prove otherwise.
Trump’s announcement made the situation around Manbij, already contentious, more unstable. There is a substantial US and international presence in the area, deterring Turkish action. Withdrawal would leave the road open for a Turkish advance, which the SDF and others would not be equipped to resist.
Capitalising on any uncertainty, the Anadolu Agency, a news agency run by the Turkish state, released information, presumably obtained from the Pentagon, that the US military would be building two new military bases near Manbij. The report included details about the increased frequency of US-led patrols near Manbij.
Assessing pictures of bases, Thomas Gibbons-Neff wrote in the New York Times: “The structures look much like the fighting positions once seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, which projected a clear message: ‘We’re here for a while.’”
But the American bases are widely believed by regional actors to be Potemkin by design, representing little in concrete terms. With both the SDF and the Turkish state convinced of the justice of their claim to Manbij, the bases alone are unlikely to prevent disagreement and possibly conflict.
“A win-win scenario for the US and Turkey with regards to an operation into Manbij should constitute a broader agreement between Turkey and US beyond Manbij… without [the] PKK… to hold off any insurgency and secure gains against regime axis advances — assuming the US is there to stay,” Ozguney said.
Whether US indecision and impulsiveness can be overcome is a different matter.