By Christopher Kozak
An open conflict will likely erupt imminently between Turkey and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the town of Manbij in Northern Syria. Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish YPG – the main component of the SDF - to be an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is currently waging an insurgency in Southern Turkey. The fight for Manbij will derail the U.S.-backed campaign against ISIS and create opportunities for al Qaeda to expand further in Syria. The U.S. must reduce its dependence upon both Turkey and the Syrian Kurdish YPG.
Turkish President Recep Erdogan has repeatedly stated his intent to expel the Syrian Kurdish YPG – the main component of the SDF – from Manbij to the Euphrates River’s eastern bank.
- Turkish President Recep Erdogan reiterated on February 28 that Turkish-backed opposition groups in Operation Euphrates Shield will advance against Manbij in Eastern Aleppo Province after they finish consolidating control over Al-Bab, located twenty five miles to the west. Turkish-backed forces in Operation Euphrates Shield seized Al-Bab in Northern Aleppo Province on February 23 after ISIS withdrew from the city and its environs toward Ar-Raqqa City.
- The end of combat operations in Al-Bab frees Erdogan to pursue his strategic aim to roll back the de-facto contiguous autonomous zone controlled by the YPG along the Syrian-Turkish Border.
The U.S. reportedly gave a deadline of February 27 for Turkey to present an alternative operational plan to seize Ar-Raqqa City as part of a wider review of the campaign against ISIS due to U.S. President Donald Trump on the same day.
- Turkey proposed inserting opposition forces into Tel Abyad in Northern Ar-Raqqa Province and forming a ‘corridor’ through terrain held by the SDF as part of a its preferred plan for an offensive against Ar-Raqqa City during a meeting between Turkish Chief of the General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar and U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford on February 17.
- Senior U.S. officials remain unwilling to contemplate proposals to exclude the SDF from operations against Ar-Raqqa City despite high-level lobbying by Turkey. Instead, U.S. Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis met with Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik on February 15 and offered increased intelligence support for operations against the PKK in Northern Iraq.
- Erdogan has already demonstrated his willingness to take actions in Syria that undermine U.S. policy positions and admonitions. Turkey threatened to partner with Russia to conduct joint airstrikes against ISIS in Al-Bab, and then did so after the U.S. ignored its repeated requests for air support.
The U.S. has taken overt actions to deter an attack by Turkey and reaffirm its support for the SDF over the past several weeks given the growing risk of a direct military conflict.
- U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander Gen. Joseph Votel and Operation Inherent Resolve Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend met with senior SDF leaders in Northern Syria on February 24. Anonymous sources claimed that the U.S. pledged to protect Manbij against attacks from Turkey. CENTCOM denied any such assurances.
- CENTCOM publicized several photos over the past week highlighting the role of the Manbij Military Council (MMC) in the campaign against ISIS in Northern Syria. The MMC is a component of the Syrian Democratic Forces that retains close organizational ties to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) - the political wing of the YPG.
- The U.S. led a field inspection with a delegation from the Turkish Armed Forces in December 2016 to demonstrate that the YPG had withdrawn completely from Manbij. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu later stated that the visit failed to satisfy concerns that the town remains controlled by proxies of the group. Thousands of residents held demonstrations in Manbij on February 13 calling for the release of imprisoned PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan.
- Unconfirmed activist reports claim that some of the 500 U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) currently present in Northern Syria may have been deployed to frontlines on the Sajur River near Manbij within the past several days in order to deter further aggression by Turkey.
Turkish leaders met on February 27 and likely made the decision to proceed with operations against Manbij rather than wait on coalition support for an offensive against ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City.
- Erdogan called unscheduled meetings with Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik and Turkish Chief of the General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar in Istanbul on February 27.
- Turkish Presidential Advisor Ilnur Cevik claimed on February 27 that Turkey plans to end its military operations in Syria after establishing a fifty-mile “buffer zone” in Manbij.
- Turkey has continued to deploy additional armored vehicles to Northern Aleppo Province in recent weeks. These reinforcements could be deployed against Manbij as well as the isolated Kurdish Afrin Canton in Western Aleppo Province.
Further escalation between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds would severely jeopardize – and likely halt indefinitely - the campaign against ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City.
- The U.S. has relied extensively upon the YPG as the main component of the SDF – the preferred coalition partner on the ground against ISIS in Northern Syria.
- Open fighting between Turkey and the SDF would allow ISIS to retain its hold on Ar-Raqqa City and potentially secure new gains across Northern Syria.
- The U.S. must exercise all of its sources of leverage over Turkey – including its military presence in Syria as well as bilateral military-to-military assistance, humanitarian support, and economic investment – in order to prevent a Turkish offensive against the SDF.
- The U.S. should also consider slowing down or halting further SDF advances in order to avoid fueling a wider conflict between Arabs and Kurds in Northern Syria. The U.S. must not sacrifice long-term stability for a quick victory against ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City.
- The U.S. must ultimately build an alternative partner force of Syrian Sunni Arabs that is both willing to fight Salafi-jihadi groups and is independent from the political project of the PYD. The U.S. cannot rely upon the Turkish-backed opposition force due to its inclusion of Salafi-jihadi groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, that serve as a vector for al Qaeda in Syria.
- 24 FEB 2017: “The Campaign for Ar-Raqqa: February 24, 2017,” Tom Ramage, Institute for the Study of War.
- 13 FEB 2017: “Warning Update: Turkish Aggression Against Syrian Kurds Threatens to Halt U.S. Anti-ISIS Operations in Syria,” Tom Ramage, Institute for the Study of War.
- 22 NOV 2016: “The Road to Ar-Raqqah: Background on the Syrian Democratic Forces,” Genevieve Casagrande, Institute for the Study of War.
- 30 AUG 2016: “Turkish Incursion in Northern Syria Signals Turning Point in Anti-ISIS Fight,” Jennifer Cafarella with Leah Danson, Institute for the Study of War.
- 10 JUN 2016: “The Competing Campaigns Against ISIS in Northern Syria,” Christopher Kozak, Institute for the Study of War.