Turkey Will Be Alone If It Attacks Syria’s Kurds in This City
Don’t mess with Manbij
by PAUL IDDON
For months now the Turkish government has been threatening to seize the northwestern Syrian city of Manbij from the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of U.S.-backed Arab and Kurdish fighters.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said multiple times that once the Turkish military and its Free Syrian Army allies seize the nearby city of Al Bab from the Islamic State, they will march on Manbij.
The Turkish army is presently bogged down in Al Bab, where the operation is at a critical juncture. Premature reports in the pro-government Turkish press and statements by Turkish officials that declare the city has been liberated — or is on the verge of being liberated — are relatively frequent, perhaps an indication of confusion or desperation.
Chances are, the Turkish military will take Al Bab. But if Erdogan gives the order and the army then moves onto Manbij, it will likely march alone.
Washington has refused to support Turkish attacks on the SDF or the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) — the largest and most important group in that coalition— since Turkey began Operation Euphrates Shield in northwest Syria in August 2016.
The SDF and YPG are of instrumental strategic importance for the United States in its war on the Islamic State.
Washington is currently supporting the SDF’s ongoing offensive toward Raqqa, the Islamic State’s main Syrian city. Russia also wants the ruling party in Syria’s Kurdish territories, the Democratic Union Party — the YPG’s political wing — to attend Syria peace talks the Kremlin is sponsoring in Kazakhstan, much to Turkey’s consternation.
Russia might even act reluctantly to reel in Damascus were it to resist a Turkish attack on the SDF and YPG, as an attack would possibly jeopardize the campaign to free Raqqa. The Syrian regime was previously able to prevent Turkey from launching air strikes on Al Bab in November when it activated air defense systems and threatened to shoot down Turkish F-16s.
Only when Turkey consulted with Russian military officials was Moscow able to get Damascus to stand down. Turkey might not be so lucky if it unilaterally attacks Manbij and sparks a wider war with the SDF/YPG, the most effective on-the-ground force fighting the Islamic State at this time.
Syrian troops are currently undertaking an offensive to Al Bab’s south, recapturing swathes of territory from the Islamic State. The group’s fighters could have relocated from villages to beef up their defenses in Al Bab.
The regime’s focus on the dreaded group comes amid infighting among Islamist militias in the northwest province of Idlib. The Syrian army has also cut off the main road from the town of Deir Hafir to Al Bab, as well as capturing nine villages in the vicinity.
The SDF have vowed to fight off any Turkish-FSA attack on Manbij, which the Kurds captured in August 2016 with the help of U.S. warplanes. Turkey has targeted the Manbij region with intermittent artillery and air strikes, leading the SDF/YPG forces elsewhere in Syria to announce they will intervene and beef up the Manbij Military Council against a Turkish attack.
The SDF are more likely than not capable of fielding more fighters in Manbij than the Islamic State have massed in Al Bab — where the terror group is largely cut off from Raqqa on the other side of the Euphrates River. The latest Turkish attacks on the SDF in the Manbij region were on Feb. 10 and Jan. 17.
Additionally, the SDF has vowed to defend Manbij after Turkey bombed villages in regions to the west. “These irresponsible actions by Turkey and its allies are strongly condemned,” the commander of the aforementioned Manbij Military Council, Adnan Abu Amjad, told ARA News on that occasion.
“We have chosen resistance to face this aggression by Turkey and its allied Euphrates Shield brigades.”
These air strikes were likely what the spokesman for the SDF, Talal Silo, had in mind when he expressed his hopes that Washington will supply the SDF with anti-aircraft missiles in the near future. Note that this is highly unlikely to happen given the political fallout of Turkish warplanes potentially being shot down with American missiles.
But while Washington and Moscow are unlikely to militarily confront Turkey on the side of the SDF, they are unlikely to support Turkey either, which could make all the difference were Erdogan to plunge his army into an all-out war with this battle-hardened Arab-Kurdish coalition.