Turkish officials have intensified their rhetoric regarding a possible operation in Syria's YPG-held Manbij, while tensions with the US have increased over its support for the group. But where are the US soldiers based?
After five years of YPG presence and expansion along its borders, Turkey has decided to start its first operation against the group on Syrian soil. On January 20, the Turkish army started Operation Olive Branch in Afrin, a northwest province of Aleppo governorate. The operation is being conducted with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
And Turkey is signalling that it won’t stop its operations against the YPG after the group is defeated in Afrin.
The YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, which is a designated terror group by Turkey, the US and the European Union, and has been conducting attacks against the Turkish state for more than 30 years.
Afrin has been under YPG control since 2012. It is surrounded by the Turkish border to the west and the North, and by the Turkish-backed FSA in the south and the east. Only a small amount of land in the southeast is linked to Syrian regime-controlled areas, from where they get their reinforcements in Manbij, Turkey’s next target. But there are US soldiers in the city, in order to back the YPG, and that led to another escalation of tension between the US and Turkey.
Where are the US soldiers based in Manbij?
Here’s a map of the locations of the US soldiers in and around Manbij city:
According to the people in Manbij who spoke to TRT World on condition of anonymity, US soldiers are not seen in the city centre as much as they were until a couple of months ago. They have three military points, none of which are very close to the city centre. The closest one to Manbij city is the only one west of the Euphrates River.
Tishrin Dam was the first point where the YPG crossed the Euphrates River in 2015. According to Turkish security sources, the YPG’s strongest position in Manbij, which holds the strongest bridge in the region, is now a base for nearly a hundred US soldiers. None of them are permanent staff, going onto the base for temporary deployments. The meetings and arms supply coming from the east are made to YPG militants in the city through this bridge on Tishrin Dam and the military point.
The other two bases are on Tabqah Dam in the southeast, and Sarrin, which is close to YPG-held Kobani. The training for the YPG militants by US soldiers are provided at these three military points.
The United States has around 2,000 military personnel in northern Syria supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which is dominated by the YPG.
How is Turkey preparing for the operation?
As the Afrin operation continues, Turkey hasn’t deployed all the FSA groups from the Euphrates Shield area to the city. While some of them are in Jarablus and Al Bab to consolidate power in the towns, an armed group of fighters is based along the frontline of the YPG-held areas of Manbij. According to FSA commanders in the area who spoke to TRT World, this deployment was made in order to protect any moves by the YPG, and strengthen the FSA’s position before any possible operation.
Not only military protection, but tribal leaders from Manbij, who oppose YPG rule in the city and fled to Turkey, gathered in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli at the end of January. According to a tribal leader who spoke to TRT World after the meeting, a number of Turkish officials were also present. They discussed how they could support the Turkish army in case of an operation in the city, and logistical and military support and intelligence sharing were also on the table.
How did the tension escalate between the US and Turkey?
Manbij has been another YPG-held area since the middle of 2016. The difference with Manbij, however, is that the YPG there enjoys huge support from the US. Not only that, it is also connected to YPG-held territory in the northeast, where 14 US military points have been based since 2015.
With the help of the US, the YPG now controls nearly a quarter of Syria.
Ankara has been calling on the US to cut its support for the YPG, and the west of the Euphrates River is its red line. But even the US had promised Turkey to withdraw from Manbij after it defeated Daesh in 2016, but the YPG is still there.
And Turkey has already declared that its next move would be on Manbij.
“With the Olive Branch operation, we have once again thwarted the game of those sneaky forces whose interests in the region are different,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech to provincial leaders in Ankara on January 24.
“Starting in Manbij, we will continue to thwart their game,” he added.
When tensions between the US and Turkey increased after Turkey’s operation on the US-backed YPG began, and they declared that their next step would be Manbij, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced a visit to Ankara for an official meeting to repair relations.
But the same day the visit was announced, two US Generals took some US journalists to Manbij to show their presence.
“We’re very proud of our positions here, and we want to make sure everybody knows it,” said Major General Jamie Jarrard to the reporters.
The other US soldier, Lieutenant General Paul Funk, added: “You hit us, we will respond aggressively. We will defend ourselves.”
This show by US Generals provoked a response from Erdogan. Speaking to his party members in parliament on Tuesday, he said, "Those who say they will give a sharp response have not been hit by the Ottoman slap... We will destroy every terrorist starting from the ones standing next to them. And then they will understand that it's better for them to not to stand along with them."
What happened in Manbij after the war in Syria started?
Manbij had a population of 100,000 people before the civil war. In 2012, opposition groups took control of the city from regime forces. Then in 2014, Daesh came. After two years of Daesh control, in 2016, the YPG cleared Daesh from Manbij with support from the US. Since 2014, thousands of people have left the city.
During the fight to take Manbij from Daesh, Turkey reminded the US of the need to prevent the YPG from establishing a corridor along its border. Turkey’s biggest security concern is the YPG carving out an autonomous territory that poses a threat to the nation.
In the same month, along with the FSA, Turkey began the Operation Euphrates Shield, its first military operation in northern Syria to defeat Daesh.
The operation held strategic importance, as it took place between Manbij and Afrin and broke apart a possible YPG-controlled corridor that would have posed a threat to Turkish national security.
In March 2017, Russia had created a buffer zone using Syrian regime forces right after Turkey-backed opposition defeated Daesh and arrived on the border with Manbij.