Will Batman blast mean new reckoning with Kurds?
The bloody October 4 incident in the mainly Kurdish Batman province is a reminder of the volatility of the unresolved conflict. In the early hours of the day, at least seven Turkish soldiers were killed when Kurdish militants detonated a roadside bomb.
The attack may have been a change of strategy by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It chose to lie low after Turkey’s June 24 elections, even after the intensification of the cross-border bombardment of PKK positions in the Qandil Mountains in north-eastern Iraq. The Batman incident should be read as a response.
There remains another issue, one that echoes across Syria’s Kurdish-held areas and centres on Manbij. When the focus was on Idlib enclave, adjacent to the Turkish-Syrian border further west, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan upped the ante. Feeling the heat with respect to overseeing the withdrawal of jihadists from Idlib, Erdogan mentioned a possible military offensive to the east of the Euphrates River, with Manbij as its epicentre.
Erdogan’s military objective was apparent: break the back of local Kurdish administrations, known to be organically linked to the PKK and its fighter units across the Jazeera-Kobani belt, in Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn.
The Kurdish issue is interlinked. If one part across the border is affected, so is the other. Hence, the link between Batman and Manbij.
However, the question remains: Will the Turkish armed forces launch another offensive without caring for prior approval from the US command in the region? Turkish troops have done it twice, in 2016 with Operation Euphrates Shield and in January this year with the aim of capturing Afrin.
It is obvious that Ankara will be faced with another impasse. Journalist Fehim Tastekin said the situation has changed drastically since 2016. “The American factor didn’t exist when Turkey was indirectly intervening in those regions,” Tastekin told Ahval News Online, “[but now] the United States may not remain a spectator and watch Turkey throw a spanner in the works in a place where it has its own forces.”
He has a point. The “American factor” was very visible when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu signed a deal in the early summer with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Cavusoglu said the agreement was for US-backed Kurdish fighters to withdraw from Manbij within six months but this doesn’t seem to be happening. Instead, to Erdogan’s rage, there have been reports of US weapons and ammunition transfers to the local Kurdish fighters.
Now, there is half-hearted cooperation. The two NATO allies have begun training for joint patrols but Turkish troops are not allowed into Manbij city centre. In a sense, the Americans have thrown up a shield against Turkey’s desire to take control. As an anonymous source told journalist Amberin Zaman: “The point of it is to de-escalate.”
The source echoed Farouk al-Mashi, of Manbij Legislative Council, who said on the second anniversary of the city’s liberation from the Islamic State, that it is safe and an integral part of Syria. The source said: “There is no need for the Turkish military in Manbij [city] as it’s already calm. [If the] Turkish military [were] in Manbij it would likely be destabilising.”
However, the Batman attack may provide Erdogan another argument, even as it adds to his displeasure about US arming of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units.
There is a chance it finds a positive echo in Washington. As on other fronts, the Trump administration’s Turkey and Syria policy remains opaque, with mixed and often contradictory signals sowing confusion about its objectives and priorities.
American diplomats, led by James Jeffrey, special envoy for Syria Engagement, are looking at Turkey’s demands but other US agencies view the situation very differently. For the Pentagon, the Kurds are an ally, a ground force against not just the jihadists but expansionist Iran.
This puts both Turkey and the United States in a difficult position. Erdogan must appease pro-Russia nationalists even as he defies the Iran embargo. The United States continues to agonise over which side to prioritise: the Kurds or Turkey.