In Syria, Turkey and US Plunging into Deep Crisis Over Manbij

U.S. Central Command shared photos of Kurdish female fighters in northern Syria hours after Turkey’s president threatened to
U.S. Central Command shared photos of Kurdish female fighters in northern Syria hours after Turkey’s president threatened to take over Kurdish-held Manbij.

Months-long diplomatic wrangling between Ankara and Washington, and Turkey’s occasional deployment of war of words towards its ally, would soon plunge into a far serious, deeper crisis over bright-line disagreements in northern Syria, over Manbij.

Turkey’s long-running calls for withdrawal of the Syrian Kurdish militants, America’s most potent fighting allies on the ground against Islamic State, from Manbij largely went unheeded. And Ankara’s desired intention to push forward toward the Kurdish-held city may bring simmering discord between two NATO allies into a boiling point, even an accidental clash.

The U.S. has deployed armored vehicles, artillery and other weapons around Manbij, with an eye on advancing Turkey-backed rebel forces. The American officials have unsuccessfully sought to reach a compromise over incongruent policy goals, conflicting strategies and different set of priorities between the two allies.

But the lingering dispute has taken an air of urgency after reports of clashes between Kurdish-dominated SDF and Turkey-allied rebels during the week. The capture of al-Bab, final phase of stated military objective of Euphrates Shield campaign launched by Turkey late last summer, did not wind down expansion of the over-stretched Turkish forces as expected.

Far from conclusion of its military campaign with taking al-Bab from Islamic state militants after three months of protracted and costly fighting, Turkey seems to extend the scope of its military mission.

When Turkey sent tanks, artillery and special forces to assist a rebel offensive to reclaim Jarabulus and other towns across the border in northern Syria from ISIS elements in late August, it set clearly-defined goals for a limited campaign.

To keep Kurdish expansion in check through preventing Kurds from uniting three Kurdish-held cantons in northern Syria, and eliminating ISIS threat across the border were two paramount objectives stated by the Turkish authorities.

The mission of Euphrates Shield was largely accomplished by capture of al-Bab, the Turkish army chief told media earlier in the week. In contrary to public expectation, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials have signaled that Turkey will not stop there.

The Kurdish presence in Manbij and who will take the lead in anticipated Raqqa offensive remain major points of friction and disagreement between Ankara and Washington. The U.S. is contemplating various military plans for Raqqa operation to overcome Turkey’s sustained objection to inclusion of SDF, Syrian Defense Forces, a coalition of fighting groups dominated by Kurdish militia group, People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Turkey harbors deep resentment and dismay over its ally’s displayed eagerness to give SDF leading role in the campaign to liberate Raqqa, capital of self-proclaimed caliphate of Islamic militants.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reiterated Turkey’s long-held position on Thursday and vowed that the Turkish forces will strike YPG if the militia fails to pull out from Manbij.

Deeds will most likely catch up with words given latest fighting between rebels and Kurdish forces. Threatened by Turkey, YPG has boosted defensive posture by digging up trenches, fortifications around Manbij for an expected assault.

Turkish and American views about YPG are worlds apart and there is no some sort of compromise or understanding in the offing. Washington’s painstaking efforts for de-conflicting of Turkish and American interests in northern Syria may stumble into irrelevance after opening of a possible new front in Syria’s multi-sided war theater.

That front in Manbij is also bound to stir broader reverberations for the U.S. planning for Raqqa campaign as SDF would withdraw substantial part of its forces for defense of Manbij against a Turkish attack.

Only hours after President Erdogan’s remarks in which he set Manbij as next step for the Turkish forces, the U.S. Central Command posted photographs of female SDF fighters on its official Twitter account in positive fashion. “Ready for the fight,” it tweeted in what seems a blatant repudiation of the Turkish president.

Raqqa operation is marred with ambivalence and conflicting strategies as Ankara pushes for a major role for Turkey-trained rebel force. But the U.S. commanders remain skeptical and cautious over the ability of a ragtag of rebels who are plagued by infighting, disparate goals, lack of discipline and experience.

U.S. sees SDF the only capable and coherent force that could descend on Raqqa with U.S. air cover and company of American special forces on the ground. The drive to liberate Raqqa has become a matter of urgency after President Donald Trump’s pledge to defeat ISIS in shortest possible time.

The U.S. has found itself locked in a shaky position navigating between its need for a quick victory against ISIS and preserving decades-long alliance with Turkey, which views the Syrian Kurdish militia as extension of its domestic insurgent group, Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

“Our soldiers will not be fighting together with people who shot us and killed our solders and are trying to kill us,” a leading Turkish security official told Reuters. He joined high-level talks between U.S. military officials and their Turkish counterparts to reconcile their conflicting plans for Raqqa.

He said the message was given to Americans.

The puzzling conundrum over Manbij is a headache for both sides while expectation for a far-reaching reconciliation seems a remote option at the moment. 

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