March 24, 2017

SYRIA: Manbij — a Knot of Contradictions and Confrontation


Oleksiy Volovych

The very unusual situation that arose in recent weeks around the city of Manbij in the north of Syria, surrounded by the troops of Turkey, Syria, Russia and the USA, is yet another illustration of the proxy war being conducted by the above-mentioned countries, based on various Syrian forces, both, the government's and the opposition's, not so much for the end of the six-year war in Syria, as for the sake of pursuing their geopolitical interests in this country. At this, their interests do not just differ, they are clearly contradictory. Thus, the small Syrian city of Manbij became a knot of contradictions and confrontation in the multilateral and multi-layered conflict in Syria.




Manbij is a small town in the north of Syria, located 30 km west of the Euphrates River and about 70 km east of Aleppo. In 2012, about 80 thousand Syrian citizens lived in it. Manbij is on the main road from Turkey to Raqqa — a city that is considered the “capital” of the ISIS in Syria. In January 2014, the city was captured by the ISIS. For two years, the main deliveries of weapons and ammunition from Turkey to various terrorist groups in Syria have been carried out through Manbij. In August 2016 the city was cleared of ISIS mainly by Kurdish forces from the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) coalition.

Positions of the Parties

Turkey's Armed Forces, carrying out the operation “Shield of Euphrates” in Syria since August 2016, are now fighting in fact on two fronts — with the militants of ISIS and with the Syrian Kurdish formations. But these are Turkey's tactical tasks in this particular situation. If we talk about Ankara's strategic task in Syria since 2011, it is to overthrow the regime of B. Assad, which R. Erdogan said directly on 29 November 2016: “We entered Syria to put an end to the rule of the tyrant Assad who arranged terror in the country”. According to him, Turkey “had been patient for a long time, but eventually could not stand it and had to enter Syria”.

Ankara believes that the Syrian Kurds are directly connected with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization in Turkey and against which the Turkish Army has been fighting for many years, both in Turkey and in Iraq. After the Turkish troops together with the fighters of the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) with the help of the Russian and US air forces wrested ground from the ISIS fighters from the city of El-Bab to the north-east of Aleppo on March 2, the Turkish leadership set as its task further development of the military operation “Shield of the Euphrates” in the direction of the city of Manbij, occupied by Kurdish detachments from the Party of the Democratic Union and farther — in the direction of the city of Raqqa. However, some military observers believe that the liberation of El-Bab from the militants of ISIS was in their simply being allowed to leave the city along the corridor as a result of agreements with Turkish troops.

In early March, Turkish troops and the FSA militants faced a number of significant obstacles on the way to Manbij. On March 3, the Military Council of Manbij decided to transfer control of the western part of the area near this city to the Syrian government forces along with Russian special forces and Iranian groups, and of the city itself — to the US special forces. In fact, the Syrian-Russian troops were stationed between the Turkish Army and the Kurdish SDF. The operation for the disengagement of Kurdish groups and Turkish troops, was supported by the American special forces, subunits of which were stationed along the perimeter of Manbij. Thus, a powerful barrier appeared on the way of the FSA fighters and Turkish troops' possible advance.

Nevertheless, the Turkish command continues to transfer infantry units and artillery to the area north of Manbij, where they are in direct armed contact with Syrian Kurds. However, if Ankara decides to strike at Manbij from the North, then it will be a direct attack on the Kurds, and not an operation against ISIS. Besides, in this situation, Turkey risks entering into a direct clash with the United States and Russia, whose partners are the Syrian Kurds.

However, some observers believe that in the area of Manbij, Turks actually imitate combat actions, understanding their futility in view of the dislocation around Manbij of Russian and American special forces in addition to the Kurds of the Syrian troops. In their opinion, in fact, the main purpose of the Turkish troops is the territory of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin between the Turkish border and Aleppo. Deprived of the support of Syrian and American troops, Kurdish units in Afrin can easily be dispersed by Turkish troops, and the population — “squeezed out” in the direction of Aleppo. Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik has stated that Ankara “at all costs” will not allow the unification of the Kurdish cantons of Rojava and Afrin in the north of Syria. It is believed that on the eve of the constitutional referendum in Turkey (April 16) R. Erdogan needs a “small victorious war” in Afrin.

March 6, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that Ankara could abandon its plans to capture Manbij, if Moscow and Washington are against it. According to him, a compromise solution may be a withdrawal from Manbij of Kurdish “People's Self-Defense Forces”. But on 9 March, Turkish troops opened artillery fire on positions of Syrian border guards, Russian special forces units and Kurds. As a result of the shelling, 8 Syrian servicemen were killed and several dozen were injured. In our opinion, Ankara is unlikely to try to capture Manbij, since a direct clash with Syrian government forces, the RF and the US special forces would tense the situation to the limit with unforeseen consequences that would unquestionably end in aggravation of Ankara's relations with Moscow and Washington.

Syrian Kurds

Syrian Kurdistan is a de facto autonomous state formation in Syria, created on 17 March 2016, which is located west of the Tigris River along the Turkish border. The region includes three cantons: Jazira, Kobani and Afrin. The canton of Jazira in the northeast is bordered by the Iraqi Kurdistan. Before the war, about 40,000 barrels of crude oil per day had been produced in this canton. Since summer 2012, the territory of Syrian Kurdistan has been controlled by the Supreme Kurdish Council. In November 2013, the Regional Government was created, which included Kurds, Turkomen, Assyrians, Armenians and Arabs. The number of Kurds in Syria is about 2.5 million people (about 9 % of the country's population). To protect the population of the region from terror, “People's Self-Defense Forces” were created, which since May 2013 have been actively fighting the militants of the pro-Turkish FSA and the Islamists of ISIS, acting as a “third force” in the conflict. Syrian Kurds do not conduct military operations against the government's forces of the SAR, but they are not their allies either. In 2016, the offices of the Syrian Kurdistan were opened in Moscow, Berlin and Paris. The USA provides political and military support to the Syrian Kurds.

The United States of America is not going to stop supporting the Syrian Kurds and makes it clear to R. Erdogan that Washington is in favor of creating a Kurdish autonomy within Syria. According to some sources, in December 2016, the United States stepped up arms supplies to the Syrian Kurds from the Party of the Democratic Union. American weapons to the Syrian Kurds are delivered by air via the Rumailan airfield in northern Syria, as well as from near Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. US military instructors are training fighters for the Forces of Democratic Syria in Manbij.

At the beginning of March, about 400 US marines and Army special task forces arrived in Syria, where they will join the 500 American military servicemen deployed in the Syrian province of Hasaka. In the area north of Raqqa, American divisions of 155 mm howitzer M777 and other long-range artillery systems are concentrated. Thus, despite Donald Trump's statement during his campaign that the USA should not get involved in military conflicts in the Middle East, nevertheless, today we see how the US troops in Syria are preparing for direct ground combat operations against ISIS in Syria, which under B. Obama was banned.

However, the Pentagon has pointed out that the US marines are sent to the area of Manbij not so much to conduct combat operations as to provide a “psychological deterrent effect” on the conflicting parties in order to prevent an escalation of the conflict. In our view, taking into consideration Washington's plans to turn the Kurdish enclave in Syria into its informal protectorate, the Pentagon's main task in that area is to prevent Manbij's being captured not only by Turkish troops, but also by Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces.

Attempts of Cooperation

At this stage, in our opinion, Moscow's main task in Syria is to establish military cooperation with the USA, for which it is ready to “partially” sacrifice its partnership relations with Turkey, Iran and even Syria. Moscow sees its military cooperation with the United States in Syria as an opportunity to establish “mutual understanding and trusting relations” with Donald Trump's administration, which, according to the calculations of the Kremlin strategists, would allow the Kremlin to eventually withdraw from international isolation and to have the anti-Russian sanctions lifted. However, it seems that these calculations are far from being realized. Thus, on February 21, in response to Russian Defense Minister S. Shoigu's proposal to cooperate in carrying out operations against terrorists in Syria, a representative of the Pentagon said that military cooperation between the United States and the Russian Federation was terminated in accordance with National Defense Authorization Act, adopted by the US Congress in connection with Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian Crimea.

As mentioned above, the United States in Syria has partnerships almost exclusively with Syrian Kurds, which is confirmed by the fact that on 25 February, the Chief of the US Central Command in the Persian Gulf, General Joseph Votel visited the Kurdish leadership in Kobani in the North of Syria in order to discuss the final stage of the operation for the liberation of Raqqa.

March 7, 2017 in Antalya, Turkey, during talks between the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, V. Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff of the TR H. Akar, and the Chairman of the Joint Staff of Chiefs of the US Armed Forces, J. Dunford, were discussed security issues in the Middle East, in particular, the latest developments in Iraq and Syria, especially around the Syrian cities of Manbij and Raqqa. The only result of the talks between the Chiefs of the Staffs of the USA, TR and RF in Antalya was an agreement on the disengagement of the armed forces of these countries on land and in the air in order to avoid accidental incidents and clashes between them.

A significant part of the talks within the framework of R. Erdogan's visit to Moscow on 10 March, was devoted to the discussion of Moscow and Ankara's cooperation in Syria, in particular, in the area of Manbij and Raqqa. R. Erdogan asked V. Putin to ban the activities of the Syrian Kurdish organizations “Democratic Union” and “People's Self-Defense Forces” in Russia. He also asked V. Putin to ban the activities of the Turkish FETO social and political movement led by the Turkish opposition figure Fethullah Gulen living in the USA. Putin left these requests without public comments. Despite Ankara's categorical objections, Moscow has consistently been advocating the Kurds' participation in the inter-Syrian negotiations in Astana and Geneva.

During the talks in Moscow between the Presidents of the TR and the RF, they also coordinated the question of setting up a special joint monitoring group to monitor the movement of Russian and Turkish troops (as well as their allies) in Syria in order to prevent incidents between them.

Bashar Assad's Position

Since Syrian armed opposition during the civil war in Syria relies on the support of many countries, primarily Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United States, the government of B. Asad was also forced to seek support from its traditional allies — Russia, Iran, and the Lebanese “Hezbollah”. The stationing in Syria of military contingents of Turkey and the United States is seen in Syria as aggression and occupation of the country.

As early as August 2016, the Turkish troops carrying out the ground operation “Shield of Euphrates” in the Syrian territory, in Damascus was called a violation of the sovereignty of the country. In Damascus, it is believed that the fight against terrorism must be coordinated with the Syrian authorities. March 10, 2017, the SAR's government appealed to the UN with a request to force Turkey to withdraw its “invasion forces” from Syria. Damascus accuses Turkey of “killing tens of thousands of innocent sons of Syria and destroying the Syrian infrastructure”.

March 11, in an interview with the Phoenix TV channel, B. Asad described any foreign troops arriving in Syria without the invitation or consent of Damascus as “aggressive, regardless of their being American, Turkish or whatever”. According to him, the presence of US troops in the area of Manbij city was not agreed with the Syrian government. B. Assad questioned that US military would help his country defeat terrorism, because “the Americans lost almost all the wars that they waged in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and even Somalia”. B. Assad believes that the Americans “are very good at creating problems, destroying and destructing, but they are very poor at finding optimal solutions”. According to him, “the only serious force that effectively combats terrorism in Syria is Russia”.

The Next Stage is Raqqa

After the lessening of tension around Manbij, the main task of a rather shaky coalition of the SAR, Russia, the TR and the IRI, as well as the United States acting according to its own plan, is the liberation of the city of Raqqa, and then, or almost simultaneously, of Deir ez-Zor from the ISIS militants. The question arises: can the SAR, RF, TR, IRI, the Syrian Kurds and the United States organize cooperation between their troops in the operations for the liberation of Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor? Today, there are not sufficient grounds for a positive answer to this question. Blackmailing and demarches between the aforementioned countries continue. Thus, the Turkish leadership has transparently hinted that Ankara can deny the US military an access to the Incirlik airbase if the USA cooperates with the Kurdish armed groups during the operation against ISIS in the area of Raqqa.

The attack on Raqqa poses the following dilemma for the Pentagon: acting together with the Turkish troops, would make it abandon the cooperation with the Syrian Kurds, which would lead to complications in relations with them and, consequently, to the loss of the support to the USA in the Syrian society. In case of cooperation with Turkey, Ankara insists on bringing special task forces from Saudia and Qatar, which would be unacceptable for Moscow, Tehran and Damascus. If the Pentagon decides to attack Raqqa independently in cooperation with the Kurds and with its NATO allies, excluding Turkey, then this will be fraught with a serious complication of relations with Ankara.

In early March, the US Marine Corps Expeditionary Unit arrived in Syria to participate in the liberation of Raqqa from the ISIS militants. The Pentagon is also planning a military operation to strike in the direction of Raqqa from Jordan via Deir-ez-Zor with the support of Polish and British special task forces. In our opinion, the desire of the above-mentioned forces and countries to establish control over Raqqa can be explained among other things by the fact that in the area of this city there are oil fields, thanks to which, before the civil war, Syria fully provided its needs for petroleum products and even exported some crude oil. Besides, the area of Raqqa is Syria's granary.


In early March, an extremely difficult situation arose around Manbij, endangering the agreement on a ceasefire in Syria and the process of a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis. The area around Manbij became a knot of contradictions and confrontations between Turkey, Russia and the United States, which are defending their own geopolitical interests in Syria. Since these countries cannot decide on mutually acceptable solutions, the terrorists receive a precious respite to regroup their forces before the decisive battle for Raqqa.

In Syria, we are witnessing a rather strange situation, when the USA and Turkey cooperate not exactly the way one would expect from NATO allies. It is quite obvious that to a large extent this can be explained both, by a loss of trust and mutual understanding for various reasons between Ankara and Washington, and by a different strategy of actions in Syria and not only in it. Firstly, Americans know how for long Ankara had been supporting ISIS, with which it is fighting today, although not effectively enough. Secondly, the Americans do not see the reason to consider Syrian Kurds terrorists, as Ankara insists. Washington does not support Ankara's massive repressions against the Turkish Kurds, who are citizens of Turkey. Thirdly, Americans do not like mass repressions against “Atlantists”, that is, against tens of thousands of pro-American or pro-Western officers in the Turkish Army, which have intensified after the military coup attempt in Turkey on 16 July, 2016. For its part, the Turkish leadership is outraged by Washington's refusal to extradite to Turkey the Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of preparing that coup. In the Pentagon and NATO, the close military cooperation between the TR and Russia is perceived with disapproval.

In addition to all these problems, we cannot exclude Washington's planning to fragment Syria into several quasi-states, but not under the Turkish, but under the American protectorate. If this happens, then all plans not only of Ankara, but also of Moscow and Tehran, to preserve or extend their influence on post-war Syria after the removal or withdrawal of B. Assad from power will be unrealizable. Naturally, there are many more problems in relations between Turkey and the United States, and it seems that these problems will remain under D. Trump's presidency. Therefore, it is not incidentally that the date of D. Trump's possible meeting with R. Erdogan is still unknown. According to the latest information, the President of Turkey hopes that his meeting with the US President will take place before the NATO summit in Brussels on May 25, 2017. V. Putin also hopes to meet with D. Trump before the G20 summit in Hamburg on July 7–8, 2017.

R. Erdogan's next meeting with V. Putin may take place in June. On the sidelines of the BSEC anniversary summit in Istanbul, where security in the Black Sea region will be discussed. Taking into consideration that the USA and 12 other countries have observer status, and 9 countries — the status of BSEC partners, and NATO's presence in the Black Sea region is currently growing, it is possible that the USA and several other NATO countries will attend this summit.