The control of Manbij leads to a new international conflict


Originally published in the Greek weekly newspaper “Paraskinio”, issue 625, p. 47 on Apr. 06, 2018

Following the great support provided by the US forces within the International Coalition against ISIS to the Kurdish militias, they managed to control the city of Manbij in early 2016 and expel ISIS. Washington then came to an agreement with Ankara to hand over the city’s administration to the locals, an agreement that the Obama administration avoided implementing. Instead, he tried to force the Kurdish militias to move westward, leading Ankara in co-operation with Moscow to launch the “Euphrates Shield” operation, succeeding in removing ISIS from an enormous area north of Aleppo and west of Manbij and cutting it the road of the Kurdish militias to the west of the Euphrates. With the inauguration of the new US government, the Manbij file has returned to the surface, and the Turkish administration has begun to increase pressure in an attempt to expel Kurdish militias from the strategically important city.

Turkey with the “Olive Branch” operation has managed in just two months to impose its control over the city of Afrin north-west of Syria in cooperation with the Syrian armed opposition troops. This operation, which took the green light from the US, Europe and Russia, increased Ankara’s momentum, which promised more military operations against Kurdish militias in Manbij and across the northeast of Syria. These threats prompted former US Secretary of State Tillerson to visit Turkey and meet with Turkish officials, which led to a satisfactory agreement for both sides. Based on this, the Kurdish militias will leave the city of Manbij but the US forces will remain without the Turkish army’s entry. Also, the city administration will be run by local committees. The future of this agreement, which is fair for both sides, is doubtful after the Tillerson dismissal, as many American statements refuse it. The meeting of the Turkish Foreign Minister with Washington officials on his recent visit did not work, as a diplomatic source assured me. The Americans asked Çavuşoğlu for more time until Mike Pompeo took over the State Department’s portfolio.

During the negotiations between Washington and Ankara on Manbij, French President Macron received a delegation of the Syrian Kurdish militias associated with the PYD. Since the meeting, which lasted about two hours, some details have leaked. Macron promised to block Ankara’s progress towards Manbij and confirmed that France would send additional troops to Syria to head for the city. Following the publication of the above, the French Presidency in a brief statement stressed that the meeting was held with a Syrian Kurdish citizens’ delegation and reiterated its support for military operations against ISIS, while making no reference to sending additional French troops. But a local source confirmed to me that in recent days new French troops arrived to the north of Syria, divided into two sections; one headed to Tell Abyad on the border with Turkey and the other deployed in the city of Manbij. This confirms that Paris is seeking a part of the Syrian pie.

The US President expressed a few days ago his intention to leave Syria very soon. This statement was taken from Paris as an opportunity that should not be missed by covering the US exit gap in the northeast of Syria. However, it seems that the young tenant of the Élysée does not know that the Syrian conflict is more complicated than France is in a position to face. Syria’s oil, gas and phosphate are important for many other regional and international players. In any case, Paris, protecting the Kurdish militias, will have to face Ankara, which considers them a direct threat to national security, as well as Iran, which has paid tens of billions to defend Assad and will do everything to benefit from these deposits. Last but not least, Moscow, the main international player in the Syrian arena, will not accept lightly the French presence.

The city of Manbij is the threshold of an international conflict within NATO. Ankara will not accept the Kurdish administration of the city, even if it needs to become more violent, or forced to use all its cards against Paris like that of the refugees. A Western source assured me that Paris had asked to attend the trilateral summit held in Ankara in the presence of the Russian and Iranian Presidents, but this request was rejected by the Turkish side. Given that Washington’s position on the future of Manbij is not yet clear until the end of April, when its strategy for the Syrian crisis will be unveiled, the current month will be very complicated for Syria and the risk of greater tension in the area is growing.