A Turkish tank on the outskirts of Jandaris town, southwestern Afrin. File photo: Omar Haj Kadour / AFP
Following its conquest of the Kurdish northwest Syrian enclave of Afrin, Turkey has repeatedly said it intends to capture the city of Manbij from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) next. Ankara also claims it will conquer all territories of Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) east of Afrin – all the way to the Iraqi border. While Turkey will likely try to pressure the US to facilitate a peaceful withdrawal of the YPG from Manbij in the coming weeks, the northwestern province of Idlib, south of Afrin, will likely be the Turkish military’s next area of operation in Syria.
“Now we will continue this process until we entirely eliminate this corridor, including in Manbij, Ayn al-Arab [Kobane], Tel Abyad [Gire Spi], Ras al-Ayn [Sari Kani] and Qamishli,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared following the Turkish takeover of Afrin on March 18.
Earlier he said Turkish military operations in Syria “will not end in Afrin. Next are Idlib and Manbij.” (The Turkish president also announced on Sunday March 25 that Ankara will “shortly” remove the YPG from the small Arab city of Tel Rifaat neighboring Afrin, which the group captured back in February 2016.)
The latter pronouncements are much more likely to materialize. Manbij is an Arab-majority city captured by the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from Islamic State (ISIS) in August 2016 with US air support. On the eve of that offensive, Washington promised Ankara that only a small YPG force would participate in the operation and that they would not remain in Manbij following the removal of ISIS. More than eighteen months later Turkey wants to see this promise fulfilled and will likely push to reach an agreement with the US there.
Unlike the case in Afrin, the US has troops based in Manbij and across the rest of Rojava. Turkey has proposed jointly patrolling the city with US troops, enabling it to verify the YPG have withdrawn. Since the US is adamant that it will not withdraw its ground forces from Manbij, Turkey cannot attack the city without running the risk of killing American soldiers. Consequently, some kind of mutual agreement between Ankara and Washington will likely determine the fate of Manbij in the foreseeable future. Also, given the fact the US is retaining forces in Rojava, and isn’t planning on leaving anytime soon, Ankara’s stated goal of invading that entire region is unlikely to see the light of day, at least not in the short-term.
Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East analyst, described the Turkish president’s “maximalist rhetoric” about invading all of Rojava as “basically a negotiating position with the United States.”
“The Afrin operation aimed to weaken the YPG, physically and politically, and force the US to take Turkish concerns about what Ankara calls a ‘terrorist corridor’ all along the Syria-Turkey border more seriously,” he went on to tell Rudaw English. “These military-political aims, in which Turkey has effectively succeeded, were intended, in part at least, to facilitate the removal of the YPG from Manbij in conformity with the Turkish-American deal of 2016.”
Orton argues that if the US does fulfill the deal and facilitates a successful YPG withdrawal to the east bank of the Euphrates, “it would be a concrete sign of goodwill after so many broken promises when it comes to America restraining the YPG.”
In addition it would also prove to Turkey that the US “can control the YPG” and “would greatly assist in US-Turkish relations since Ankara harbors doubts, not unlike with the regime coalition, where Russia clearly cannot control Syrian President Bashar al-Assad nor Iran, that the US doesn’t have a handle on its proxy.”
“The only thing worse, from Turkey’s perspective, than the US backing its mortal enemy, is the US building up and supporting its mortal enemy and being unable to rein it in,” Orton went on to reason.
And while even a successful Manbij deal would still leave the SDF/YPG in control of approximately a quarter of Syria, all of the northeast and large swaths of the eastern Deir ez-Zor province, as well as the former ISIS capital Raqqa, removing the group from that Arab city “would take the urgency out of the matter and allow the US to take up a position as a mediator between two allies rather than this continued policy of down-the-line support for the YPG that is incentivizing Turkey to destabilize the entire US-underwritten post-IS governing structure in northern and eastern Syria.”
Whatever happens in Manbij the province of Idlib – currently occupied by the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist group, an offshoot of the al-Qaeda network – will likely be next on the Turkish military’s target list.
“Erdogan must keep his momentum, now that war fever has gripped the nation,” Professor Joshua Landis, a frequently cited Syria expert who works for the University of Oklahoma, told Rudaw English. “I think Idlib will actually be next after he consolidates a bit in Afrin. He must foreclose the regime’s window for retaking Idlib, while it continues its campaign in the Ghouta.”
“Manbij and the east is a longer term project that will require considerable cageyness,” he elaborated. “The Americans will not be in a mood to show weakness now that they have a new team in the White House and State Department.”
Landis was referring to the Trump administration’s recent appointment of the hawkish John Bolton as President Trump’s National Security Advisor and former CIA Director Mike Pompeo replacing the more conciliatory and moderate Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State.
In the meantime, “Erdogan will want to take as much land as he can in order to maximize his leverage in Syria,” he concluded.
Orton notes that Turkey’s current low-level Idlib operations are “somewhat separate to the Afrin operation – even though the two zones are now geographically connected for the first time in a number of years.”
“The Idlib area has little effect on Turkey’s ability to govern Afrin, but the Turks have begun to focus more on al-Qaeda and its offshoots in Idlib,” he explained. “This is a difficult task, and is lower among Turkish priorities than the YPG issue, but Ankara has shown some success in dealing with the jihadists by splitting their ranks, covert operations to eliminate especially intransigent leaders, and backing anti-jihadist rebels.”
“How durable any of this is open to question,” Orton concluded. “There is no actor except Turkey that can clear Idlib of terrorists in a discriminating way, and with the rebels once again seen by Turkey as a useful instrument there is clear incentive, even in the coldest realpolitik terms, to disentangle the extremists from the workable insurgents.”