Future of northern Syria hinges on US-Turkey Manbij deal

Future of northern Syria hinges on US-Turkey Manbij deal
Analysis: A deal between Turkey and the US could circumvent further bloodshed in the country, as Turkish forces push forward their offensive against Kurdish-held northern Syria, writes Paul Iddon
5 min read
19 March, 2018
A US military convoy drives into Manbij earlier this month [Getty]

Having declared victory over the Syrian-Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) group in their isolated Afrin enclave, Turkey is once again looking to remove the group from the city of Manbij. A deal between the US and Turkey could see them jointly remove the group without the use of force. If successfully executed this could avert further confrontation between Ankara and the YPG in Syria following the two-month battle over Afrin.

On 18 March, Turkey declared victory over the YPG in the enclave, while the Kurdish group claimed they are simply reverting to a guerilla war against the Turkish forces since they are completely outgunned and outnumbered on the battlefield. Afrin's fall was inevitable since geographically it is completely isolated from the rest of Syria's Kurdish territories - known as Rojava - which span across two-thirds of Syria's northern border. Now, having occupied Afrin, Turkey controls almost the entirety of the other third of Syria's border in the northwest - the only exception being the small city of Tel Rifaat.

Aside from Afrin these territories consist of a 60-mile wide span of northwestern border territory - situated between Afrin and Rojava's other two contiguous cantons - that have been under the control of Turkey and its Syrian militia proxies since they captured it in their Euphrates Shield operation against the Islamic State group (IS), which ended after the bloody battle for the city of al-Bab in March 2017.

The only major urban centre Turkey does not control in that area is Manbij - located about 25 miles south of its border. Just before Turkey launched the aforementioned Operation Euphrates Shield on 24 August 2016, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) Arab-Kurdish coalition - the backbone of which is made up by YPG forces - captured the Arab city from IS after a costly US-backed campaign that lasted the entire summer. Turkey agreed to acquiesce to the operation, just before its launch, provided it was spearheaded by Arab SDF fighters, with the YPG playing a small supporting role. 

Ankara wants Washington to facilitate the withdrawal of the YPG from Manbij and establish joint patrols with its forces in the city

Furthermore Ankara was, and still is, adamant that the YPG not retain any presence on the west bank of the River Euphrates, since that gives them a foothold closer to Afrin and violates a Turkish red line that has been in place there for three years now. Washington has proven receptive to Ankara's stance on this issue.

"We are not going to act alone any longer, not US doing one thing, Turkey doing another," former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during his February trip to Turkey. "We will work together... we have good mechanisms on how we can achieve this." 

Ankara wants Washington, which deployed troops to Manbij early last year to de-conflict any clashes between the SDF/YPG and Turkish-backed militiamen there, to facilitate the withdrawal of the YPG from Manbij and establish joint patrols with its forces in the city. Even though Tillerson has since been sacked by US President Donald Trump - and is being replaced by former CIA Director Mike Pompeo - the deal remains in place according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin.

"Tillerson is not in a position to carry out meetings now and Pompeo is not informed on the issues, so it will cost us 1-2 weeks, but we will continue working on this," Kalin said. "As part of the talks held with the United States, we want to see the YPG removed from Manbij as a first step."

Read More: Kurdish self-rule in Syria 'enters its final days'

On 16 March, Erdogan repeated this condition before suggesting that: "If the US evacuates the Manbij region along with members of the terrorist organisation, we can solve this issue faster and more easily."

The Turkish president is clearly keeping the door open for an operation to seize Manbij if a negotiated withdrawal is not brokered with Washington.

Turkey has began establishing a promising looking industrial zone in al-Bab that could employ Syrians in a relatively safe part of their own country.

Successful implementation of a US-Turkey deal over Manbij could prove highly important for the future of northern Syria, where both Turkey and the United States have troops embedded with rival proxies there. Manbij has been a potential flashpoint between the two NATO allies for a year now. Any Turkish attack there now could expand the war between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces from far-flung Afrin to the rest of Rojava, which would cause more widespread instability and destruction. 

While Kurdish forces travelled from across Rojava to fight off the Turkish invasion of Afrin they did not attack Turkish forces from anywhere else on their lengthy frontier with Turkey. This could change if Turkey extends its operation to Manbij, or into Rojava's main territories stretching eastward of the Euphrates to the Iraqi border, which Erdogan has declared many times is his ultimate goal.

A deal over Manbij, on the other hand, could establish two clear zones demarcated by the Euphrates and could deter Turkey from invading all of Rojava. Ankara would likely retain its forces in the Euphrates Shield territories, where they have been there for over 18 months now, in which it has began establishing a promising looking industrial zone in al-Bab that could employ Syrians in a relatively safe part of their own country.

It will also likely retain a large force presence in Afrin, where in just the last few days fighting has displaced over 200,000 people, at least for the foreseeable future to combat any Kurdish resistance. It remains unclear if Erdogan will now go ahead with his stated intention of returning Afrin to "its rightful owners", which suggests that he seeks to forcibly eradicate Afrin's long-established Kurdish-majority demographics.

While this would, for obvious reasons, be devastating for Syria's Kurds a successful deal over Manbij could, nevertheless, save the vast majority of Rojava which they still control.