US officials visited Manbij last week. Photo: Manbij Military Council
The US and Turkey have yet to reach any agreement on Manbij, US State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert reiterated on Tuesday. The two sides have hashed out their differences, however, and further talks are expected next month, suggesting a deal may be in the works.
“The two sides … outlined the contours of a road map for further cooperation, and that includes on Manbij,” said Nauert, adding that discussions on this subject will continue when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visits Washington on June 4.
Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Turkey in February to establish this roadmap to prevent relations between the two NATO allies deteriorating further. One primary stumbling block in the relationship is America’s continued support for the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara says is indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a named terrorist organization that Turkey is at war with in its southeastern Kurdish provinces and the Kurdistan Region.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to attack Manbij since Turkish forces directly entered the Syrian conflict in late August 2016. It is crucial to remember that Turkey made a secret deal with the US in May 2016 in which it agreed to acquiesce to a small force of YPG fighters crossing the Euphrates River – a major “red-line” for Ankara in Syria – as part of a larger Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) offensive against Islamic State (ISIS).
In return for this acquiescence, Washington promised Ankara the YPG would not remain on the west bank of the river. To this day Turkey remains convinced the group is still in the Arab city, which is why it frequently threatens to attack.
Nauert has directly contradicted Ankara on more than one occasion since February, denying any deal has been agreed on the status of Manbij. Turkey advocates joint patrols between its forces and the US military in the city. This way it could conclusively verify firsthand whether the YPG retains a force in the city.
However, for the US, this will be hard to sell to the YPG. For one, the Kurdish group has already had to give up its isolated northwestern Afrin exclave following Turkey’s incursion earlier this year. Also, after the costly battle to retake Manbij from ISIS in the summer of 2016, the YPG are understandably reluctant to simply withdraw from the city in the midst of Turkish threats.
Nevertheless, there are still grounds for a successful US-brokered deal which could allow Erdogan to save face and offer the YPG guarantees that the two-thirds of northern Syria it controls east of the Euphrates will not be invaded by Turkey.
While Erdogan routinely threatens to extend anti-YPG operations all the way up to the Iraqi border – conquering all of Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) – he has also said Ankara will not advance any further against the YPG provided it is not directly threatened by the group.
However, the YPG has only fought Turkey and its proxies when itself attacked in cross-border assaults. The three-month war in Afrin is a prime example. The YPG only engaged Turkish forces in Afrin and did not open up another front anywhere else along its lengthy frontier with Turkey.
Given this record, the US can rely upon the YPG to honor any deal that addresses Turkey’s security concerns. Washington could also assure the YPG that by withdrawing and permitting joint US-Turkish Army patrols in Manbij it can guarantee Turkey will not invade the rest of Rojava.
Erdogan could feasibly claim victory in Manbij to the Turkish public while quietly agreeing to the continued presence of the Manbij Military Council, governed over by Arab SDF members. This would not be a dissimilar outcome to what Turkey ultimately settled for in Shingal earlier this year, when the PKK withdrew from the region but the Yezidi Shingal Protection Units (YBS), which the group founded and trained, remained in place.
The US was never going to come to the YPG’s aid in Afrin. That was clear for several years before Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch. The US never had a presence there and the Rojavan territory was never part of its anti-ISIS efforts in Syria. This is not the case for the rest of Rojava, where the US is likely to retain an overt military presence, even after the SDF/YPG forces complete Operation Roundup against ISIS remnants in eastern Syria.
The Euphrates River could serve as a rough demarcation line between US and Turkish areas of operation in northern Syria in a similar – albeit imperfect – way it serves as a demarcation line between separate US and Russian-backed areas of operations against ISIS in eastern Syria.
The US has no real interest or stake in northwestern Syria, as evidenced by the Trump administration’s decision to cut off tens of millions in assistance there in May. The Turkish Army, on the other hand, has just set up its 12th observational point in Idlib province, as part of the Astana Agreement between Turkey, Russia, and Iran to de-conflict large parts of Syria, and will likely remain there and in Afrin for quite some time.
While any deal reached to end the Manbij impasse will likely prove highly imperfect, it nonetheless has the potential to prevent any further conflict in that volatile part of Syria and is consequently a worthwhile endeavour for all parties involved.