The U.S. and Turkish militaries are on a collision course, and the point of impact for the two NATO allies is the Syrian town of Manbij.
Turkish forces say the northern Syrian city, which is ground zero for U.S. operations in support of local Kurdish and Arab forces fighting Islamic State, is a prime objective of their current campaign against Syrian Kurds. The Turks say they will not curtail a Manbij assault because American troops are there, while a top U.S. general said last month that a withdrawal “is not something we are looking into.”
U.S. special operations troops based in Manbij have stayed largely out of Ankara’s way while the Turkish offensive remains focused on the Kurdish stronghold of Afrin, just over 200 miles north of Damascus.
But with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to invade Syria to put down Kurdish forces is proving politically popular at home, Turkey’s plan to expand Operation Olive Branch eastward into U.S.-controlled territory in northwestern Syria is unrolling like a slow-motion collision in which neither side has a clear way of tamping down the threat of open conflict.
“This is a dangerous moment” for Turkey and the United States, Sarhang Hamasaeed, director of Middle East programs at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, said Monday.
Ankara’s long-standing partnership with Washington in the region, along with the countries’ shared alliances within NATO, should be enough to keep American and Turkish forces from turning their guns on each other, Mr. Hamasaeed said in an interview from Baghdad, although the next few days could be tense.
“Both sides have an interest. … There is a will, too,” he said, “but there is a risk things could get out of control” quickly.
Tensions soared last week when Turkish officials announced that Ankara will move against Manbij if Syrian Kurds allied with Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, do not withdraw from the city.
Large elements of the YPG or Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) make up the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the U.S.-backed confederation of Arab and Kurdish paramilitaries that flushed Islamic State from its Syrian capital of Raqqa last year. U.S. forces continue to train and equip SDF fighters — including those tied to the YPG and PYD — in Manbij. Military leaders say the danger from Islamic State in Syria has not disappeared despite the terrorist group’s recent battlefield losses.
“If [the YPG] do not withdraw from Manbij, then we will go to Manbij, we will go east of the Euphrates,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said Sunday on CNN. Mr. Bozdag went further, adding that U.S. forces could be targeted by Turkish troops moving into Manbij if they are spotted wearing YPG “uniforms.”
“If they come up against us in such a uniform, we will see them as … terrorists,” he said. U.S. forces enraged their Turkish counterparts in 2016 when several American special operations advisers based in Manbij were photographed wearing YPG insignia.
Last week, U.S. Central Command chief Joseph Votel told reporters that the Pentagon was not considering any American withdrawal from Manbij and the surrounding areas.
Declarations and accidents
The clashing declarations from Ankara and Washington are creating a “situation on the ground [that] is dangerous enough for accidents to happen,” Mr. Hamasaeed said.
Accidents aside, “I think it is a real risk” that Turkish troops or their proxy forces in northern Syria could set their sights on American forces in Manbij, said Jennifer Cafarella, senior intelligence planner at the Institute for the Study of War.
Local reports of Turkish-trained proxy forces engaging in brief skirmishes with SDF troops and their U.S. advisers near Manbij have already begun to surface, Ms. Cafarella said Monday. Any armed conflict between U.S. and Turkish forces would likely involve proxy forces, armed and backed by Ankara and Washington, respectively, rather than American and Turkish troops trading fire, she said.
“Whatever the U.S. says or thinks, our [Syrian] partners are engaged in a war with Turkey,” posing a complicated reality American and coalition commanders are being forced to deal with in Manbij sooner rather than later, she said.
The biggest question facing the Trump administration is determining when continued U.S. involvement in Syria runs counter to the president’s “America first” political agenda and desire to avoid new foreign entanglements, Mr. Hamasaeed said.
“The interest is there, the diplomatic means are also there,” within the U.S. military and diplomatic corps to strike a balance between appeasing Turkey while maintaining American ties to its Syrian allies, he said.
“But that question will test the U.S. commitment, and this is where the U.S. is in a tough spot,” he said.
Late last month, Mr. Trump warned Mr. Erdogan in a phone call that any expansion of Ankara’s incursion into the northern Syrian enclave of Afrin, which is home to nearly 10,000 Kurdish militia members, could “risk conflict between Turkish and American forces,” said a White House readout of the Jan. 24 call.
While “the U.S. approach seems relatively siloed” in Syria, focused on the Islamic State threat, a diplomatic solution could be reached to get Ankara to pull back its forces while maintaining a secure border with Syria, Ms. Cafarella said.
“The question is: At what line do they do that?” she said. “Welcome to the most complicated corner of Syria.”
The Afrin distraction
Despite the potential threat to U.S. forces in northwestern Syria, Pentagon officials have characterized Ankara’s actions in Afrin as a distraction from the continuing fight against Islamic State.
“We view anything that takes attention away from the Euphrates River Valley and operations against ISIS as a distraction,” said Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff. “But the degree to which it detracts from that focus is the degree to which it is worrisome to us,” he told reporters Thursday at the Pentagon.
But after roughly two weeks since Turkey’s initial thrust into Afrin, that distraction is quickly devolving into a bloody conflict along the Syrian border.
Ankara says Turkish forces have killed 900 YPG fighters since the Afrin operation began on Jan. 20. Unofficial figures provided by YPG elements inside the city say 150 civilians had been killed and 300 wounded in Turkish airstrikes and artillery fire.
An estimated 5,000 residents in Afrin, a city of an estimated 1.2 million including 400,000 refugees fleeing the Islamic State campaign and the ongoing Syrian civil war, have fled the fighting, according to the United Nations.
A suicide attack on a Turkish tank in Afrin on Sunday ended with five troops dead. Three others were killed in separate incidents in and around the city in the single deadliest day for Turkish troops, the BBC reported. At least 14 Turkish troops have died since the invasion began.
One of the Turkish soldiers killed Sunday died on the Turkish side of the Syrian border. Ankara said the attack was carried out by YPG troops using American-supplied mortars and artillery.
The Pentagon has pushed back against such claims, telling their Turkish counterparts that the U.S. would continue to arm Arab and Kurdish elements of the SDF, as coalition forces continue to pressure Islamic State remnants in the Euphrates River Valley, Gen. McKenzie said. “That equipment is being used to good purpose by the SDF.”
U.S.-supplied arms and equipment in the hands of Kurdish militiamen that Ankara considers part of a terrorist organization has only fueled sentiment inside Turkey for a push into Manbij. Turkey sees support for YPG and PYD elements in northern Syria as lending “legitimacy to the SDF to control the border” and the YPG by extension, Ms. Cafarella said.
Mr. Erdogan has successfully turned those fears of a YPG-controlled Syrian border region into political capital in Turkey, using the Afrin offensive to stoke nationalistic fervor ahead of key elections this year, said Ms. Cafarella.
“Mr. Erdogan’s motives are definitely linked to his domestic campaign” in Turkey, she said.