This article was published in Arab News on August 26, 2018.
Turkey-US differences should not be allowed to overshadow Manbij agreement
Turkey is a member of the US-led anti-Daesh coalition, but its relationship with Washington is suffering because the latter preferred to cooperate with the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) rather than with Turkey. Nonetheless, upon Turkey’s insistence, the US belatedly kept its promise to pull Kurdish fighters from the northern Syrian district of Manbij to the east of the River Euphrates.
The agreement reached between the two NATO allies is that Turkish and American soldiers will jointly patrol in Manbij to ensure the arrangement is implemented. At present, they patrol separately outside the city center, along the northern boundaries of the town.
Training is underway that will eventually mean that soldiers of both sides patrol together. This joint patrol will later move to downtown Manbij. The US seems set on having American soldiers involved in the joint patrol, because it is reluctant to leave Manbij entirely in Turkey’s control.
Full details of the joint patrol have yet to be disclosed. It is not known, for instance, whether they will be entitled to search for YPG fighters suspected to be hiding there.
The Turkish media occasionally questions the whereabouts of the heavy weapons supplied by the US to the YPG. If they are kept in caches in the town, this may undermine the mutual trust between the Turkish and American soldiers cooperating in Manbij.
It would be safer to assume that Turkish-US cooperation in Manbij is more of a symbolic gesture than a substantive one: The US will be able to claim that it has kept its promise to withdraw YPG fighters from the west of the River Euphrates, and Turkey will be able to claim it has achieved its target of pushing YPG fighters to the east of the Euphrates. It is worth remembering that Daesh was ousted from the district by the YPG fighters.
US President Donald Trump’s incessant threats against Turkey raise the question of whether Ankara-Washington ties are likely to stabilize any time soon
The US has cancelled $230 million in stabilization assistance for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This gap will probably be filled by a $300 million fund from anti-Daesh coalition members in the Gulf.
Turkey, for its part, has to reassess its approach to the SDF and reckon with the Kurdish reality in the north of Syria. On this particular point, Ankara’s interests overlap to a large extent with those of Damascus, as they both are opposed, to varying degrees, to the creation of an autonomous Kurdish entity.
Kurds have so far benefited from the strong support of the US, but if they feel betrayed —particularly because of the Washington-Ankara agreement on Manbij — they may turn to the Syrian government. Two weeks ago they had talks in Damascus. A framework that may be characterized as “a unitary but decentralized state” is emerging from these talks.
The US administration has appointed a highly qualified person, James F. Jeffrey, as its Syria coordinator. He served in 2007-2008 as Deputy National Security Advisor; in 2008-2010 as Ambassador to Turkey; and in 2010-2012 as Ambassador to Iraq.
This makes him an excellent choice for this mission. At a time when no other high-ranking US official has admitted the link between the YPG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — a listed terrorist organization in the US and EU countries — Jeffrey has done so.
Jeffrey’s appointment to this important job was therefore received with relief in Turkey, but that alone is unlikely to solve the whole slew of problems between the two countries. The incompatibilities between Turkey’s Syria policy and that of the US remain unchanged. Admitting the link between the PKK and YPG is one thing, the US’s desire to cooperate with the YPG is another.
Whether Trump decides to withdraw US troops from Syria or not, the US will continue to need the YPG and the SDF — the backbone of which is composed of YPG fighters — as leverage to shape post-war Syria. The US invested hundreds of millions of dollars to supply weapons and ammunition to arm and train the YPG. It will not easily give up the advantages of this huge investment. Additionally, Syria is not a stagnant crisis, but a shifting one, so Jeffrey will have to use all his diplomatic skills to navigate the largely incompatible interests of all sides.
The Pentagon seems to be aware of the importance of cooperating with Turkey, though a storm is still raging between these two countries over the release of the American evangelical pastor currently under house arrest in Turkey — and for many other reasons. But the pastor crisis should not be allowed to overshadow the Turkey-US Manbij agreement.