Turkey Now Eyes Manbij, Key to US Presence in Northeast Syria
How far is the Trump administration ready to go to keep Turkey in NATO and constrained from swinging all the way over into the Russian-Iranian Middle East orbit? Pretty far, it seems. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan was permitted this week to conquer the Kurdish region of Afrin and drive out America’s Kurdish YPG ally. And when Washington ventured to criticize the grave humanitarian violations committed by the Turkish army and its local surrogates, the Turkish president blasted the Americans as lousy partners.
“If we are strategic partners, you must respect us and move along with us,” Erdogan declared at a meeting of his Justice and Development Party in Ankara. “You tried to deceive us. You sent 5,000 trucks of weapons there. You sent more than 2,000 trucks of ammunition. We wanted to buy weapons from you for cash, but you did not give us any. What kind of strategic partnership or solidarity is this?”
But then he sent Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu into action for the usual diplomatic soft soap, i.e. an announcement that Turkish Foreign Ministry undersecretary would “meet with his US counterpart in the coming days.” This stratagem worked for Turkey in Afrin: Turkish delegations played the diplomatic game with US officials, while Erdogan’s army went through with his plan to seize the Kurdish enclave.
But now, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report, a US-Turkish collision may be at hand, should Erdogan make good on his threat to go next for Manbij, another Kurdish town in northern Syria just 60km east of Afrin on the banks of the Euphrates River.
He delivered that threat full blast on Sunday, March 18, while Turkish tanks were storming into Afrin City. Calling Afrin a “mere comma” in Turkey’s’ battle against Kurdish militias, Erdogan shouted: “We will now add the full stop, God willing… We will now continue to Manbij, Ain el-Arab (Kobani), Tal Abyad, Ras al-Ain and Qamishli” – Kurdish towns east of the River Euphrates – “until the terrorist corridor is gone.” Erdogan was bluntly threatening areas held by US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces which also host US military bases.
And that was not all: “Turkey is prepared to go into northern Iraq’s Sinjar region where PKK fighters are based,” said the Turkish president, referring to the separatist Turkish Kurdish Workers’ Party.
The Afrin success has whetted Erdogan’s appetite for expansion. Whereas he previously called for the Kurds’ withdrawal to lands east of the Euphrates, today, he is ready to cross the river and seize all the Kurdish regions of northern Syria and their capital Qamishli. Is he going too far?
Our military sources don’t believe that Washington or the Kurds of Qamishli can afford to wait for the Turkish hammer to crash down on their heads. Manbij, which is held by the Kurdish YPG with US support, could be the breaking point. If Erdogan orders his army to turn east and head for this town, the Trump administration will have to determine whether to send in the marines and air force to defend Kurdish positions there or let the town fall to the Turkish invaders, like Afrin. Earlier this week, there were signs of US marines being redeployed from their east Syrian bases as reinforcements for the Kurdish defenders of Manbij.
The Kurdish militia can’t defend Manbij against the Turkish invaders on its own without air cover – any more than its fighters could save Afrin. They are not equipped to fight off an air attack and have very few anti-tank weapons. The loss of Manbij would place at extreme risk the great US-backed Kurdish successes of the last two years – from the liberation of Raqqa as the Islamic State’s stronghold, to the Khabour Triangle and the regions east of Deir ez-Zour, which hold more than half of Syria’s oil and gas resources.
The Kurds fought those battles in a coalition with local Arab tribes. This alliance was badly shaken up by the loss of Afrin. The tribesmen are beginning to shrug off orders from their Kurdish officers and would most likely desert if Manbij were to be lost to the Turkish invaders. The Kurds would have to bury their dreams of a semiautonomous state in their northern Syrian cantons.
The US military in eastern Syria may be facing an even larger nightmare scenario. Turkey and Iraq are in negotiation for Turkish troops to take bases in the Sinjar region of northern Iraq. Turkish forces could then attack the Kurds in northern Syria from the west. Russia and Iran may have okayed this handover because it would enable Turkish troops to disrupt US and Kurdish supply lines into northern Syria. Iranian proxy forces are already heavily concentrated along the Syrian-Iraqi border north of Sinjar.
The three presidents may set their seal on a Turkish military presence in northern Iraq at their summit in Istanbul on April 4.
A Turkish operation in Syria against Manbij or Kobani would put US forces directly at risk. Operations farther east would make the presence of 2,500 US troops housed in 20 bases hardly tenable or forced to contract into a smaller area. Manbij, the key to the US military presence in northeastern Syria, will top the agenda when the promised Turkish delegation sits down with US officials in Washington. But diplomacy did not save Afrin and Erdogan continues to keep his options open.