Could Manbij be the beginning of a US double game in Syria?

  • Saim Kurubas
  • 19 Jun 2018

Washington seems to have come to terms with Ankara on the removal of PKK's Syrian branch, the YPG, from Manbij by agreeing to patrols nearby. But it also cooperates closely with the terror group in the eastern parts of the Euphrates River.

In this Wednesday, April 4, 2018 file photo, a US soldier sits on an armoured vehicle at a newly installed position, near the tense front line between the US-backed YPG militants and the Turkish-backed forces, in Manbij, northern Syria. ( AP )

Turkey and the US have begun independent patrolling missions in the outskirts of Syria's Manbij city – that is held by the YPG, an affiliate of the PKK terror organisation – with the aim to remove the group from the area.

The move comes in accordance with a roadmap announced by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week but in contrast to Washington’s support to the YPG in other areas of Syria.

On Monday, Turkish armoured vehicles were stationed to the north of Sajur River, which runs through the town of Manbij and Jarabulus, where Turkey had previously conducted Operation Euphrates Shield.

The Sajur River has turned into a frontline between the Turkish-controlled north and the YPG-held south.

Turkey is patrolling outskirts of Manbij, north of the Sajur River, and the US is patrolling south of it in Manbij. 

"As per the Manbij Roadmap and Safety Principles previously agreed upon, independent patrol activities by soldiers of Turkish Armed Forces and US Armed Forces have begun on the line between Operation Euphrates Shield area and Manbij," the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) said in a statement.

Operation Euphrates Shield, which launched in August 2016 and ended in March 2017, aimed at eliminating terrorist threats from Daesh and YPG, along the Turkish border with the help of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Armoured vehicles of the Turkish Armed Forces start to patrol between the northern Syrian city of Manbij and Turkey's Operation Euphrates Shield area on June 18, 2018.(AA)

Turkish and US forces carried out independent patrols in an area overlooking the US base in Syria's town of Dadat, Anadolu Agency reported on Monday.

“The mission near Manbij wasn’t conducted under the expertise of the US Central Command, CENTCOM, whose responsibilities include the operations in Syria among others, but it was launched by the United States European Command, EUCOM. This shows the divide within the US army against their stance on the Syria policy and Turkey,” Abdullah Agar, a Turkish terror and security expert who is also an MP candidate from the Nationalist Movement Party, MHP, told TRT World.

Road map being implemented

Turkish forces entering the Arab-majority city that lies just 30 km (19 miles) south of the Turkish border is in line with the road map that outlined a three-stage process suggesting the withdrawal of the YPG.

The first stage was a preparatory meeting to lay the groundwork for the implementation of the road map.

The second stage is a 30-day period when final preparations will be made. The final stage includes the YPG’s removal without their arms in fewer than six months and the city will be governed by a local council.

The plan will be implemented only in Manbij, but Turkey signalled that if it proves to be a success, it will push for a similar arrangement in the eastern part of the Euphrates.

"What we want is to clear terror organisations near our borders. Whether it was Daesh, the PKK or the YPG with Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch we drained the swamps. Next, is to clear Manbij via diplomacy. Manbij belongs to its own people, not to the PKK and the YPG. After Manbij we will do the same in other cities as well," Cavusoglu told reporters on Monday in Antalya, a southern Turkish city.

Turkish forces launched another military operation, Operation Olive Branch, in the YPG-held Syrian city of Afrin in northern Syria on January 20.

Along with the Free Syrian Army, Turkish forces cleared the area from terrorist groups in two months.

This map prepared on June 19, 2018 according to the latest developments on the ground shows the areas controlled by Turkey and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army in detail.(TRTWorld)

“We are cleaning Manbij [from terrorists]. The YPG is leaving the area, and we have achieved this through diplomatic means,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said during his governing Justice and Development (AK) Party’s election rallies in the Black Sea province of Samsun and Ordu.

“We are working together with Russia and Iran in the west of the Euphrates. Syrian refugees who had escaped from Manbij and came to Turkey would return their homes after the area is cleared of terrorists,” he said.

Erdogan likened the possible return of Manbij locals to the 200,000 Syrians, who were returning their homes in Afrin and Jarabulus, after they were liberated from terrorists as a result of Turkey's anti-terror operations in the area.

Is Manbij a sign of warming ties between the NATO allies?

Relations between Ankara and Washington have strained during the past few years over various issues, including the arrest of an American pastor in Turkey, extradition from the US to Turkey of Fetullah Gulen, who is responsible for the bloody attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government in 2016.

US armed support for the YPG in Syria has also been a bone of contention between the two countries.

The YPG is the Syrian branch of the PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU.

The PKK has been waging an armed campaign against the Turkish state for more than three decades and the fighting has left more than 40,000 dead, including civilians.

The YPG had declared its desire for an autonomous region in northern Syria in the early years of the Syrian civil war.

In this June 4, 2018 file photo, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, meets with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu at the State Department in Washington.(AP)

However, the US has decided to work with the group on the ground against Daesh in Syria despite Ankara’s strong objections.

The US formed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Syrian militants from different ethnic groups in 2015 in an apparent attempt to calm down Turkey.

However, the group is dominated by the YPG and it was just a rebranding.

“Turkey has been following every step taken in its southern border as the YPG poses a threat to its national security,” Agar said.

"The coordinated patrols are part of the commitment to long-term security and stability in Manbij, and the US commitment to NATO ally Turkey," Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon told reporters on Monday.

In this June 9, 2018 file photo, the PKK and the YPG terrorist leader Abdullah Ocalan's poster is seen at northern Iraq's Mount Qandil. The Turkish army has carried out air strikes there regularly since July 2015, when the PKK resumed its armed campaign.(AA)

Qandil operations

The Turkish military has recently ramped up operations not only in Syria but in northern Iraq as well, targeting the PKK camps in Qandil, the location of several high-ranking members of the terror group.

“The Turkish army has neutralised 36 terrorists in anti-terror operations in both Turkey and northern Iraq,” the military said early on Tuesday.

Turkish authorities often use the word "neutralised" in their statements to imply the terrorists in question either surrendered, were killed or captured.

Turkey's president said Turkey inflicted the heaviest blow in history against the PKK terror group.

“Turkish troops were advancing on Qandil with determined steps," Foreign Minister Cavusoglu said on Tuesday in an interview with a private TV channel, NTV.

A senior Turkish diplomatic official, who talked to TRT World on condition of anonymity, said Turkey and the US agreed to more intelligence sharing on the PKK in northern Iraq during the talks ahead of the Manbij deal, so that Americans could prove that they support Turkey on its fight against the terror organisation in Iraq.

The security expert Agar says the Manbij model is very important to overcome the crisis of confidence and warm ties between the two allies.

“But it won’t turn into a double game in Syria against Turkey. Ankara has determination and capacity to clear the terror groups from its borders,” Agar added.