MANBIJ, Syria — A slow-motion train wreck between two NATO allies could reach the collision point at this strategically critical, ethnically mixed city, as Turkish forces consolidate their victory in the Syrian border town of Afrin over local Kurdish forces 90 miles to the east and U.S. troops stand by their own Kurdish allies in Manbij.
Turkish forces started advancing into Afrin 20 miles south of the border in January, but U.S. commanders and analysts say the battle is diverting Kurdish manpower from the defense of Manbij.
Residents watch nervously and wonder if the Trump administration will continue to stand by this small autonomous city or step aside and force residents to accept Ankara’s domination.
In fact, Manbij is shaping up to be a testing ground of Western commitment to the Kurdish forces — the men and women who bore the brunt of the struggle to liberate the area from Islamic State.
Meanwhile, Turkey is determined to push from its borders an armed group that it says is radicalizing its own Kurdish minority.
President Trump’s surprise comments last week that Islamic State had been largely defeated and that U.S. troops would be leaving Syria “very soon” has added to the deep sense of unease.
“People here want to talk about how to rebuild their lives,” said Samir Mohammed Noor, a Manbij imam who passes much of his time advising couples on matters of marriage and divorce and helping local traders resolve business disputes.
“With the help of God, President Trump and U.S. forces may stay to bring peace to Syria.”
Manbij’s anxiety is ironic, given the major strides the U.S. and local allies have made in rolling back Islamic State.
Just over a year ago, Islamic State’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” sprawled across large parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq. Today, the only remaining sign of the 18-month reign of terror in the city is the wrecked cemetery, where the jihadis smashed tombstones. They claimed that the elaborate historic monuments were signs of idolatry.
“ISIS even placed explosives inside mosques,” said Abdullah Fayad, a 45-year-old resident. Pointing to a massive pile of rubble in the center of the cemetery, he said, “They blew up this ancient one over here.”
The brief sense of peace that has mostly reigned since Islamic State terrorists were driven out of the city has given way to another threat: Turkey’s Euphrates Shield campaign.
The Turkish National Security Council, chaired by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, threatened last week to deploy if the Kurdish militia didn’t withdraw immediately from Manbij.
Ankara claims Syrian Kurdish militants are closely aligned with Turkish Kurds, who have waged a long, bloody separatist struggle.
In a televised interview in February, Mr. Erdogan said Euphrates Shield forces would turn toward Manbij because it is “historically Arab” and should be “cleared of these terrorist organization elements,” his way of describing the Kurdish forces in the city.
Cengiz Candar, who served as an adviser to Turkish President Turgut Ozal in the early 1990s, predicts Mr. Erdogan’s ambitions go far beyond a lightning cross-border strike and that a permanent Turkish presence in northern Syria is on the table.
“The Turkish objective goes beyond merely stopping the Kurds,” Mr. Candar told the German news agency Deutsche Welle last week. “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.”
Manbij’s population is 80 percent Arab, but the locals prefer to align themselves with the Kurdish minority largely because they adamantly renounce Islamist armed groups — including Sunni jihadi organizations operating in the area and the multinational Islamic State.
Mixed U.S. signals
Manbij residents grew even more nervous last week with mixed signals from Washington.
Mr. Trump promised a quick withdrawal of U.S. forces despite repeated Pentagon and State Department signals that the estimated 2,000 American troops were in Syria for the long haul as the country’s 7-year-old civil war played out.
Mr. Trump spoke with Mr. Erdogan by phone on Friday “to discuss regional developments and the strategic partnership between the United States and Turkey.”
Top Turkish officials dismissed Mr. Trump’s talk about an imminent pullout as “rhetorical.”
In August 2016, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces captured Manbij from Islamic State with support of the U.S.-led coalition.
Although the victory was a critical blow to Islamic State’s power base, Ankara wasn’t celebrating.
“Turkey is using Afrin as a form of brinkmanship to have the Kurdish forces evacuate Manbij,” said Hay Yanarocak, a Turkey analyst at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center.
He said Washington and Ankara are likely to negotiate an arrangement in which Manbij — or at least the area around it — is seen as a Kurdish retreat.
“I can’t say that Turkey was happier when ISIS controlled the area, considering [Islamic State] launched rockets at Killis” — a town 22 miles northeast of Afrin — “and attacked tourism spots in Istanbul,” he said. “But they were pleased when the Kurdish forces were losing men to ISIS in the Syria fighting.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday that his country would bolster its force commitment in Syria, but Mr. Erdogan warned that Paris could become a target of Ankara’s wrath.
Manbij residents credit the Kurds with defeating Islamic State and restoring a semblance of normalcy under the protection of U.S. and French troops.
“There is fighting here, but the front line is stable,” said Mohammed Abu Adil, head of the Manbij Military Council, which guards the city and its surroundings. “Coalition forces are present and, in fact, their numbers have increased since Turkey made its demands.
“We’ve made it clear that we are staying and not going to withdraw from the city,” he said.
Raising the stakes even higher in the wake of Mr. Trump’s remarks about withdrawal, the Pentagon on Saturday released the name of a U.S. soldier who was killed by a roadside bomb near Manbij.
Master Sgt. Jonathan Dunbar, 36, of Austin, Texas, was deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. Another coalition service member, who had not been publicly identified, was killed, and five others were wounded in the attack on the allied patrol on the Turkish-Syrian border.
The SDF forces in northeastern Syria constitute a mixed army of some 70,000 Kurdish and Arab fighters, including up to 10,000 volunteer female fighters in Kurdish women’s protection units. For the past eight months, these forces have faced off against their ostensible countrymen: Sunni Syrian fighters dug into positions on the Turkish side of the border, 10 miles north of Manbij.
“Officially there’s [a cease-fire] agreement between the coalition and the Turks,” said Shiya Gerde, a front-line commander in the SDF forces. “But the pro-Turkish Sunni militias do initiate clashes and are constantly probing our positions.”
Mr. Gerde estimates that a force of 650 troops from an array of Sunni Syrian groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, which has links to al Qaeda, are stationed on the other side of the border at the Manbij front lines.
These Sunni Syrian forces have lobbed 120-mm artillery shells toward Manbij from the safety of a nearby Turkish army base, the commander said.
“They are most active at night, shouting out ‘Allahu akbar’ when shooting,” said Mohammed Sheh Abed, a 20-year-old Kurdish fighter from Manbij. “After Turkey launched Euphrates Shield, their behavior started to change.”
Using his binoculars, Mr. Abed spotted the array of forces deployed against the Kurds in this corner of northeastern Syria.
“Some of the men facing us wear Free Syrian Army uniforms; others are in Kandahar robes,” said Mr. Abed, referring to the Afghan-style garb often favored by jihadis close to al Qaeda. “Another unit that’s affiliated to a tribal clan from Deir ez-Zor wears uniforms similar those we used to see on the men from the Islamic State.”
• Jacob Wirtschafter reported from Cairo.