Why the battle for Manbij will make or break Trump's relations with Turkey
On 12 February, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told journalists that the Turkish army will press on to Islamic State-held Raqqa. "After Al-Bab is over, our next target will be Manbij and Raqqa," he said. Recently, Turkish armed forces and its allied Free Syrian Army have almost seized full control of the strategic town of Al-Bab in northern Syria. Initially, Turkey embarked on its “Euphrates Shield” operation to realise three primary objectives:
- Cleanse the northern stretch of Syria from the blood-soaked cult of IS, which has carried out brutal attacks against Turkish targets not only in Syria but also in Turkey
- Create a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border provinces
- Preclude the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from establishing their autonomous canton on the threshold of Turkey
Turkey views the YPG as an outlawed, aggressive militia and a splinter of the banned PKK, that has waged an armed mutiny against Turkey for over three decades. To achieve these goals, retaking the strategic city of Al-Bab is not enough. That’s why Erdogan proclaimed that Turkey's cross-border military operation in northern Syria will create a 5,000sq km “safe zone” and to achieve that the Turkish incursion needs to press on towards Raqqa and Manbij.
For Turkey, Manbij is the next inevitable target for two main reasons. First, Manbij was captured last year by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that are backed by the US and, at the same time, listed by Turkey as a terrorist offshoot of the outlawed PKK. Secondly, the Obama administration's support of the Kurdish militias which it claimed were the most effective combat force fighting IS blatantly disregarded Turkish concerns, jeopardising strategic relations with its primary ally in the region. So Manbij will serve as the first real test of the alleged change in Washington’s Syrian policy under US President Donald Trump.
Though Trump’s pundits claim that he might change his mind on many issues, it seems that he’s been consistent on Middle East policy. On the one hand, his policy - or at least what he's claimed he will do - tends to avoid direct involvement in a quagmire that has extended into a regional proxy war.
On the other hand, he believes that the Obama administration's investment in moderate Syrian rebels was extravagant. Ashe said soon after he was elected, "we have no idea who these people are”. He argues that while those US-backed “moderate rebels” are fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the US should instead expend all of its efforts on fighting and defeating IS. The question is how?
During his electoral campaign, Trump vowed repeatedly that his main priority would be to defeat IS. When he took office, he ordered his security advisors to develop a roadmap to defeat the group within a month. He vehemently affirmed that the US has to “start winning wars again” and, only this week, proposed a defence spending boost of $54bn.
American strategists unanimously agree that to defeat IS, Trump has to choose a regional ally - Turkey, SDF, Russia or even the Syrian regime. Turkey has set out its prerequisites for any regional coordination with Trump: the new US administration needs to stop backing Syrian Kurdish militias that have recently displayed photos of armoured vehicles that they’ve allegedly received from the Trump administration. Washington has denied this. Also, Turkey is cautiously skeptical of Trump's plan to create safe zones in Syria. Trump pledged to “absolutely do safe zones in Syria for the people”. The question, again, is how? Ankara says that it has not been thoroughly consulted on safe zones, while Moscow has advised Washington not to exacerbate the situation in Syria.
What’s after Al-Bab?
The coming few days will be critical in deciding the future of US-Turkish relations. In the meantime, Turkey is persisting with its cross-border operations and, in order to secure the success of "Euphrates Shield", will need to prepare to recapture Manbij from the SDF. However, it might face genuine challenges. Assad forces are moving fast toward the south east of the Al-Bab countryside to halt the progress of the Turkish army and Turkish-backed forces.
On Thursday, the Manbij miitary council, which is part of the SDF, agreed to hand over areas west of town to Syrian government troops. Looking ahead, it's possible the SDF could evacuate the town, leaving it to Assad’s forces. If that happens, Turkey would find itself fighting Assad and Iranian militias directly, a worst-case scenario that Turkey is eager to avoid simply because it would not only exhaust it militarily, but would also drive a strong wedge between Ankara and Moscow.
On the other hand, Turkey is busy on the home front preparing for the coming constitutional referendum scheduled for 16 April. So, at this particular stage, Ankara is not interested in any uncalculated escalation in Syria that could cast dark shadows on the pending reforms.
If Ankara decides to go on with its offensive and push SDF out of Manbij without US consent, then the scenario of Jarabulus operation - where Turkey and the US risked being on opposite sides of the fight for the border town last year - might be repeated. Ankara’s unilateral ground progress could lead to undesired reactions from its American ally as happened at the outset of “Euphrates Shield”.
Backing SDF - or Assad?
So, for Trump, the coming few days will determine the nature of cooperation with Turkey. Trump might decide to go on supporting the Kurdish militias and, if that happens, the case is closed and tension could lead to a diplomatic and political rift between Ankara and Washington.
Over the past few days, the SDF launched proactive attacks in its Raqqa offensive, aiming to retake towns and villages east of the city. The SDF is clearly trying to present its credentials to the US-led coalition under Trump. The US-led coalition has promptly answered in kind, bombarding several bridges across the Euphrates River in support of SDF operations.
The last potential option for Trump is Assad himself. Assad’s endeavours to get closer to Trump have been clearly visible. Assad claims that Trump could be a "natural ally" and that his pledge to fight IS is "promising". Trump himself has been reiterating that the existence of leaders like Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Assad is much better than the chaos and vacuum that their toppling has created. And he publicly flirts with the idea of normalising relations with Syria should Assad undertake superficial reforms.
In Trump’s doctrine, it’s not unconvincing or implausible to whitewash Assad and take him as a regional partner. As long as Assad is able to present himself as a strong autocrat who is able to crackdown on IS and maintain some measure of stability, Trump wouldn’t have a problem in coordinating with him.
Turkish-American relations sit on the brink of a steep cliff and the potential for further conflict is clear, unless Turkey, the US and Russia manage to achieve a compromise a deal that alleviates the tension and satisfies each party’s regional strategic aspirations.
It’s really unfortunate that the Syrian spring was not able to produce a representative elite that meets popular expectations and respects the people’s heroic sacrifices in one of the unprecedented epics of recent history. Sooner or later, foes and friends need to recognise that the Syrian nation will be the sole determiner of its future.