This article was published in Ahval News on March 9, 2018.
Future of Manbij
Before U.S.-Turkish talks, scheduled for mid-March, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said this week the guiding criteria for the new administration to be set up in the Syrian district of Manbij should be the ethnic composition of its population prior to the Syrian crisis.
In other words, the attempt of the Syrian Kurdish political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), to change the ethnic composition of the population in favour of Kurds would be foiled.
According to Al-Monitor of Feb. 23, the civilian authority of the Manbij canton is composed, at present, of 71 (56.3 %) Arabs, 43 (34.1 %) Kurds, 8 (6.3 %) Circassians, 1 (0.8 %) Armenian and 1 (0.8 %) Chechen. Syrian census records may help find out whether these figures reflect the pre-crisis breakdown of the population.
If Turkey insists on taking the Syrian records as the only valid basis, it may be misleading, because many Kurds in northeastern Syria were stripped from the citizenship. Therefore they may not have been registered as citizen during the census. This controversy has to be sorted out to determine the accurate picture.
Irrespective of this controversy, the Turkish government has to be congratulated for proposing the pre-crisis ethnic distribution as a basis, because international law prohibits the forced alteration of the ethnic composition of any given area.
Another controversy in Turkish-U.S. relations is the ousting from Manbij of Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the PYD. Two weeks before Çavuşoğlu’s statement, Turkish media reported there was progress on this issue.
The root cause of the controversy goes back to the time of the Obama administration. When Turkey launched the military operation in Syria dubbed ‘Euphrates Shield’ in 2016, Manbij was among the cities the Turkish army was going to clear from Islamic State (ISIS), but the U.S.-supported YPG did it before the Turkish army.
Turkey asked the United States not to let the YPG cross to the west of the River Euphrates and Washington promised the YPG would withdraw to the east of the river after Manbij was cleared from ISIS. This did not happen.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, during a phone call with the U.S. President Donald Trump, brought this issue up and the latter promised that he would take immediate action, but this promise has remained unfulfilled as well.
Now, ahead of the Turkish-U.S. joint committee meeting conclusion, encouraging but vague statements are coming from the U.S. side. They say that the United States will put an end to its military cooperation with the YPG when ISIS ceases to be become a threat in Syria and Iraq. This means that it will not take place any time soon.
Another U.S. promise was that heavy weapons provided to the YPG during the anti-ISIS fight would be collected. This promise is also tied to the condition of the elimination of ISIS, which means that it is not going to materialise any time soon either, but it also means that the light weapons will not be collected at all. Many terrorist attacks could easily be carried out with light weapons.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan asked U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson for public order in Manbij to be secured by Turkey and U.S. concurrently. It is difficult to tell whether the United States will accept this proposal, but even it is accepted, there might be practical difficulty in implementing it. If the city is to be divided into sections like Berlin was after World War Two, Turkey’s expectation may not materialise, because Turkey will not have any control in the neighbourhoods outside its section.
This agreement, even if it materialises, leaves another question open. According to the UN Security Council Resolution 2254, the solution to the Syrian crisis will be “Syrian-led and Syrian-owned and that the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria”.
After the transition period to democracy, it will be Damascus authorities, with or without President Bashar Assad, that will decide the type of the local administration to be set up in Manbij. Therefore it makes more sense if Damascus is invited to get involved in the process from day one.