US, Turkey on collision course in Syria's Manbij

A town in northern Syria is at the center of a potentially explosive dispute between Turkey and the United States. The fate of the US-led coalition against the "Islamic State" and the future map of Syria are at stake.

The United States and Turkey are on a collision course in northern Syria, threatening to ignite a dangerous new phase in the Syrian civil war, undermine the fight against the "Islamic State" (IS) and redraw the map of the Middle East.

The epicenter of this brewing conflict is Manbij, where the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Turkish-backed rebels face off across a combustible frontline.

Read more: What do the US, Russia, Turkey and Iran want in the Syria conflict?

Regional complexities blur map of control

The SDF, a mixed Arab and Kurdish force, captured Manbij from IS with US-led coalition support in August 2016, extending the boundaries of the de-facto autonomous Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, or Rojava, across the west bank of the Euphrates River.

Fearing the Kurdish YPG militia, the dominant force in the SDF, would expand the offensive to link up with Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin further to the west, the Turkish military and Syrian rebel allies intervened in Operation "Euphrates Shield" in August 2016.

Seven months later Turkey and its rebel allies had vanquished IS and carved out a zone of control in northern Syria. Operation Euphrates Shield set the stage for the Turkish military and its rebel allies to launch an offensive against the YPG in Afrin, which they captured this March after a two-month offensive.

Read more:  Turkey's military offensive against Kurdish-held Afrin: What you need to know

Turkey looks to create sphere of influence

According to Cengiz Candar, a foreign policy adviser to former Turkish President Turgut Ozal in the early 1990s, Turkey's actions in Syria — including setting up governance structures — "looks like permanently establishing a Turkish presence in northern parts of Syria that will serve Ankara, hitting many birds with one stone."

"The Turkish objective goes beyond merely stopping the Kurds. It is to make Turkey a regional power or at least  a power broker; a formidable player, on the map of Syria and also, if possible, Iraq's, to give Turkey a stake in shaping up the future of the region," he said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long vowed to clear northern Syria of a "terror corridor." Turkey considers the YPG, and its political wing the PYD, to be a terrorist group tied to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade-long insurgency in Turkey.

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Read more: Who are the Kurds? 

Turkey issues hardline threat

On March 28, the Turkish National Security Council issued a statement saying "Terrorists in Manbij need to leave the region immediately; otherwise Turkey will not hesitate to take its own initiative as it did in other regions. Turkey will maintain the same steadfastness against terrorist groups east of the Euphrates."

The threat comes as US and Turkish diplomats continue to try to ease tensions over northern Syria following meetings in February, with Turkey demanding the US pressure the SDF to withdraw from Manbij to the east of the Euphrates. 

Unlike in Afrin, US and coalition allies have special forces in Manbij and east of the Euphrates to support the SDF against IS and deter any other armed groups — including NATO ally Turkey.

Read more: French President Emmanuel Macron offers to mediate in Turkey-Kurdish SDF talks 

US special forces act as a deterrent against attacks on SDF-controlled areas

Manbij: The next frontier

The so-called "Manbij pocket" occupies strategic territory overlapping geo-military struggles in Syria's multi-sided conflict alongside tribal, ethnic and ideological factors pushing and pulling on the ground. Ethnically, the city is about 80 percent Arab. 

The Manbij Military Council, a largely Arab body allied with the SDF, controls the area and is viewed as a successful integration of Arabs into the SDF, said Nicholas Heras, a Middle East Security fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

"The Manbij Military Council is probably one of the most successful examples of the SDF creating an Arab partner force within its structure," he said, noting that the US had prodded Syrian Kurds to include Arabs within the SDF as a condition for support.

Turkey opposes US-backed, Arab-Kurdish force

From Turkey's perspective, the Manbij Military Council is nothing more than a front for the PKK/YPG pulling the strings behind the scenes. The Manbij Military Council's embrace imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan's ideology of "democratic autonomy" has also upset some Arab tribes in the area, according to Heras.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

War with no end

Syria has been engulfed in a devastating civil war since 2011 after Syrian President Bashar Assad lost control over large parts of the country to multiple revolutionary groups. The conflict has since drawn in foreign powers and brought misery and death to Syrians.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The dictator

Syria's army, officially known as the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), is loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is fighting to restore the president's rule over the entire country. The SAA has been fighting alongside a number of pro-Assad militias such as the National Defense Force and has cooperated with military advisors from Russia and Iran, which back Assad.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The northern watchman

Turkey, which is also part of the US-led coalition against IS, has actively supported rebels opposed to Assad. It has a tense relationship with its American allies over US cooperation with Kurdish fighters, who Ankara says are linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighting in Turkey. The Turkish military has intervened alongside rebels in northern Aleppo, Afrin and Idlib province.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The eastern guardian

The Kremlin has proven to be a powerful friend to Assad. Russian air power and ground troops officially joined the fight in September 2015 after years of supplying the Syrian army. Moscow has come under fire from the international community for the high number of civilian casualties during its airstrikes. However, Russia's intervention turned the tide in war in favor of Assad.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The western allies

A US-led coalition of more than 50 countries, including Germany, began targeting IS and other terrorist targets with airstrikes in late 2014. The anti-IS coalition has dealt major setbacks to the militant group. The US has more than a thousand special forces in the country backing the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The rebels

The Free Syrian Army grew out of protests against the Assad regime that eventually turned violent. Along with other non-jihadist rebel groups, it seeks the ouster of President Assad and democratic elections. After suffering a number of defeats, many of its members defected to hardline militant groups. It garnered some support from the US and Turkey, but its strength has been greatly diminished.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The resistance

Fighting between Syrian Kurds and Islamists has become its own conflict. The US-led coalition against the "Islamic State" has backed the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias. The Kurdish YPG militia is the main component of the SDF. The Kurds have had a tacit understanding with Assad.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The new jihadists

"Islamic State" (IS) took advantage of regional chaos to capture vast swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Seeking to establish its own "caliphate," IS has become infamous for its fundamentalist brand of Islam and its mass atrocities. IS is on the brink of defeat after the US and Russia led separate military campaigns against the militant group.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The old jihadists

IS is not the only terrorist group that has ravaged Syria. A number of jihadist militant groups are fighting in the conflict, warring against various rebel factions and the Assad regime. One of the main jihadist factions is Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which controls most of Idlib province and has ties with al-Qaeda.

Who's fighting in the Syria conflict?

The Persian shadow

Iran has supported Syria, its only Arab ally, for decades. Eager to maintain its ally, Tehran has provided Damascus with strategic assistance, military training and ground troops when the conflict emerged in 2011. The Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah also supports the Assad regime, fighting alongside Iranian forces and paramilitary groups in the country.

The Manbij Military Council has been one of the key components of the SDF, fighting IS not only in Manbij but also in Raqqa and further east around Deir ez-Zor.

The US military has resisted making concessions to Turkey over Manbij out of concern it may unravel the carefully put together coalition of Kurds and Arabs fighting IS under a US umbrella. 

After the US stood by as Turkey conquered Afrin, a hasty US withdrawal from Manbij would also be viewed betrayal by the SDF.

"Manbij for the US is more than just a territory on the map. For the US military it is the door that secures the Raqqa countryside and Raqqa is the showroom model for the US' post-IS stability building mission," said Heras.

Will US appease Erdogan?

Any US concession to Turkey on Manbij also raises the question of whether it would be enough to appease Erdogan.

"US policy makers believe Erdogan's appetite is bigger than just Manbij and they take him at his word. When Erdogan says Manbij, he means all the way to the border of Iraq," Heras said.

"The mood within the US military is to not withdraw from Manbij unless there is a very clear and on paper agreement with the Turks as to the limits of where Turkey will be able to operate east of the Euphrates — which is nowhere. Unless there is that kind of guarantee, the mood is not to back down in Manbij,"he said.

Syrians start from scratch in Raqqa

Mangled steel and concrete

Much of Raqqa, once an "Islamic State" stronghold, now lies in ruins. What remains of the city are destroyed building shells of concrete and mangled steel. Local traffic uses hastily cleared paths and roads to avoid any hidden IED’s (improvised explosive device).

Syrians start from scratch in Raqqa

Sticking together

Families use various modes of transport to get around the city. These include bicycles, motorcycles or a home-made wheelie box shown in the image above.

Syrians start from scratch in Raqqa

No transport too small

A familiar sight on the region's roads and streets: Here three young girls, two adults and a child squeeze on to a small motorcycle. It’s the quickest way to get around town.

Syrians start from scratch in Raqqa

Row the boat ashore

Small rowing boats ferry people and goods across the river. Local say the Raqqa bridge over the Euphrates river was destroyed by IS forces in a preemptive strike to slow down the Syrian Democratic Forces approaching the city.

Syrians start from scratch in Raqqa

Work is just around the corner

Teams of manual workers sit on street corners. With people returning to the city eager to rebuild their homes, these workers are in high demand.

Syrians start from scratch in Raqqa

Buy two, get one free!

Coffee, soft drinks and energy drinks are in high demand among the laborers drafted in to rebuild homes and businesses. The owners of make-shift food and drinks carts are doing brisk business.

Syrians start from scratch in Raqqa

Back home

A typical view of a residential area in one of the city’s neighborhoods. A woman with her two children walks past a family that has recently returned home. The father has rebuilt the apartment’s outer walls but with no running water and electricity, many obstacles remain.

Syrians start from scratch in Raqqa

Personal belongings

As the sun sets a family arrives where a block of flats once stood. Each collapsed floor rests on the one below. Rummaging through the rubble two men covered in dust manage to salvage a king-sized mattress. A few moments later the father finds his son’s school book.

Syrians start from scratch in Raqqa

Spent force

Two boys walking down one of the city streets hold two used shells. IED’s still present a real threat and are a common cause of death and injury. IS fighters booby-trapped bodies, money, toys and rubbish among other things.

US policy unclear

However, US policy is one of mixed signals, which may embolden Turkey and discourage the SDF, possibly tempting the Kurds to ally with the Assad regime against Turkey.

As the US military repeatedly commits to standing their ground, US President Donald Trump said in off the cuff remarks this week the US would leave Syria "very soon."

"We'll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon — very soon, we're coming out,"Trump said after noting IS has largely been defeated. The comments reportedly caught the State Department and Pentagon off guard. 

Read moreTrump freezes Syria recovery funds amid rumors of early exit

Candar, now a Visiting Scholar at Stockholm University's Institute for Turkish Studies, noted that US indecisiveness "emboldens Erdogan to follow a reckless policy in Syria which might end up with unintended consequences for all the parties involved."

Asked what his advice to US policy makers would be, he said: "Anything that would not be interpreted as appeasement could be considered as a sober advice for the US policy makers in handling Turkey over northern Syria. However, I am also aware that sobriety is not a particular trait of the current American administration."

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