In Multipolarity

By Amberin Zaman, Al-Monitor, March 2, 2017   (further below: Syrian state to be buffer between Manbij and Turkish forces, Rudaw News Agency, March 2, 2017)

After President Recep Tayyip Erdogan named Turkey’s next target as Manbij and the Turkish foreign minister promised to strike if the Kurdish People’s Protection Units don’t withdraw, Turkish-backed fighters in Syria seem to be acting on the threats in a cluster of villages west of Manbij.

Fighters of the Manbij Military Council on patrol on June 1, 2016 (Rodi Said, Reuters)

As if the murky constellation of conflicts in Syria were not tangled enough, Turkey seems poised to muddy the waters further by escalating its battle against the Syrian Kurdish-led force that is helping the United States defeat the Islamic State.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has for some time now been vowing to capture Manbij, a Syrian Arab town that was liberated from IS by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with the help of coalition air power last year. “After the liberation of al-Bab from Daesh terrorists, Turkey’s new target in Syria is Manbij,” Erdogan told reporters March 1, using the Arabic acronym for the jihadi group.

“Manbij is a city that belongs to the Arabs, and the SDF also must not be in Raqqa,” Erdogan said.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu chimed in March 2, saying, “We have said that we would strike if the YPG fails to withdraw.” He was referring to the People’s Protection Units, the Syrian Kurdish militia that dominates the polyethnic SDF forces. Ankara labels it a terror group over its links to autonomy-seeking Kurdistan Workers Party rebels in Turkey.

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters seemed to be carrying out Turkey’s threats March 1 as they moved on a cluster of villages west of Manbij. But the SDF thwarted these moves with one of its own. The Manbij Military Council set up by the SDF and trained by the United States to secure Manbij following the town’s liberation announced that it would surrender the targeted villages to Syrian regime forces and Russia to prevent a confrontation with Turkey and the FSA.

Regime forces have been advancing with Russian air support for some time, initially toward the IS-held city of al-Bab, over which Turkish forces and their FSA allies finally won control last week.

Regime forces have since fanned out northward from al-Bab, linking up with SDF forces south of Manbij.

Russia has proved to be a master at leveraging its military muscle in Syria in ways that allow Turkey and the FSA to pursue IS to the benefit of the regime.

What this portends for the Syrian Kurds’ five-year experiment with self-rule over a swath of territory running east of Manbij all the way to the Iraqi border is a big question.

Another is why the SDF’s top ally, the United States, has remained silent in the face of Turkish and regime advances. There may be several reasons. For one, Turkey has always made it clear that it will not tolerate any YPG advances west of the Euphrates River, where Manbij lies. The YPG and its political affiliates were supposed to leave once the town was fully freed. The United States offered guarantees to that effect. But the Syrian Kurds did not leave, and the Manbij Military Council is widely viewed as a YPG front.

Nicholas Heras, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, believes the United States will stay out of the Turkish-Kurdish tussle over Manbij. This is because “the United States is not invested in a permanent SDF presence in Manbij and it will not want Manbij to be the cause of a war between the SDF and Turkey that would prevent the counter-IS campaign of achieving its true objective: the defeat of IS in Raqqa and throughout eastern Syria,” he told Al-Monitor in an interview.

The deal between the regime and the SDF will surely reinforce critics’ long-running claims that the YPG is colluding with the regime, but it gets Washington off the hook. Indeed, the pact may even serve as something of a template for Raqqa. A nagging problem in plans to overrun the jihadis’ so-called capital is the lack of adequate manpower.

Turkey’s offer to take Raqqa with the FSA is likely to be ignored because the U.S. military planners remain unimpressed.

While the United States would never want to cooperate directly with the regime, any help it can get on Raqqa would clearly not be unwelcome. And as recent developments in Manbij have shown, with Russia pulling the strings, the SDF and the regime are capable of working together when need be. It may not be all that bad an outcome for Turkey, either, for the alternative, a deeper U.S. footprint in alliance with the Kurds, is viewed by Ankara as the biggest threat of all.

Amberin Zaman is a journalist who has covered Turkey, the Kurds and Armenia for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times and the Voice of America. She served as The Economist’s Turkey correspondent between 1999 and 2016. She was a columnist for the liberal daily Taraf and the mainstream daily Haberturk before switching to the independent Turkish online news portal Diken in 2015. She is currently a public policy scholar at The Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, where she is focusing on Kurdish issues. On Twitter: @amberinzaman

Syrian state to be buffer between Manbij and Turkish forces

Rudaw News Agency, March 2, 2017

Under attack from Turkish forces, the Manbij Military Council has handed control of territory west of the city over to Syrian forces “in order to protect civilians.”

Political map of Syria showing cities, towns and provinces (Ezilon Maps)

The local force responsible for security for the city of Manbij announced on Thursday [March 2] that it had made an agreement with Russia to cede control of areas along its front line with the Turkish army and its allied Free Syrian Army (FSA) to Syrian state forces who will “be the dividing line between the Manbij Military Council Forces and areas controlled by the Turkish army and the Euphrates Shield elements.”

Under the agreement, villages west of the city will come under Syrian border guard control, putting a buffer between the Manbij Military Council and the Turkish and FSA forces engaged in Turkey’s operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria.

The deal was made after the FSA launched an attack on the Manbij forces in several villages on Wednesday, temporarily taking control of Tal Turin and Qara among other sites in the countryside southwest of the city. By Thursday, after 24 hours of clashes and shelling from both sides, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported, the Manbij forces were back in control of the area.

The Council announced on Thursday that they had killed 12 fighters in the clashes and seized a tank. The Observatory reported the death of at least six Euphrates Shield fighters and one from the Manbij side.

The Manbij council also reported that many families were displaced by the fighting.

The Syrian army intends to tighten its control over territory between Aleppo and the western-most Kurdish canton of Afrin in order to stop possible advances of both Turkey and ISIS, Iran’s Fars News reported, citing an unnamed military source.

Speaking to reporters earlier this week, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, coalition commander in Iraq and Syria, urged all forces to remain focused on defeating ISIS. “We encourage all forces to remain focused on the counter-ISIS fight and concentrate their efforts on defeating ISIS, and not toward other objectives that may cause the coalition to divert energy and resources away from Raqqa.”

The Manbij Military Council was formed by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to oversee retaking the city from ISIS last summer.

The Council is receiving support from the US-led global anti-ISIS coalition. As tensions heated up between Turkey and Manbij, the US Department of Defense published photographs this week of coalition forces training female Manbij Military Council members in “basic rifle marksmanship, and squad level weapons and movement techniques.”

The US described the forces as “a multi-ethnic force that includes Kurds, Arabs, Christians, Turkmen, Yazidis and others.”

Manbij was declared free of ISIS on August 12 last summer.

Later that month, Turkey launched its Euphrates Shield operation, the stated aim of which was to clear its border areas of terrorist groups, naming both ISIS and Kurdish groups. Turkish towns near Syria came under periodic cross-border shelling by ISIS.

Ankara believes the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG), who are the dominant force within the SDF, have ties to the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated that after ousting ISIS from al-Bab, which was done last week, either Manbij or Raqqa could be the next target of the Euphrates Shield operation.

Syrian Kurds call for buffer with Turkish forces

Associated Press, March 2, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest developments on the ground in Syria and at the Geneva peace talks. (all times local):

2:30 p.m.

U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish troops say Russia has brokered an agreement between them and Turkish-backed opposition fighters. The deal seeks to avoid clashes between the two mutually hostile rival, both fighting the Islamic State group in northern Syria.

The Manbij Military Council, part of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, says that under the deal, they will withdraw from a front line as rival Turkish-backed forces near the Euphrates River. This will allow Syrian government forces to create a buffer between them.

However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara there was no such agreement between Russia and the Syrian Kurds.

Kurdish-led forces captured the northern town of Manbij from IS last August, prompting Turkey to deploy troops into northern Syria.

Turkey considers the Kurdish forces a terrorist organization, linked to its home-grown Kurdish insurgency. Turkish troops are stationed in the Syrian town of al-Bab, 40 kilometers (25 miles) southwest of Manbij. [End report]


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