Sirwan Kajjo
Jun 09 2018

U.S.-Turkey Manbij deal a turning point for Syrian Kurds

Syrian Kurdish leaders are concerned that Turkey would be more inclined to strike similar deals with the United States after the recent U.S.-Turkish agreement on the northern Syrian town of Manbij.

They note that their partnership with the U.S. in the war against ISIS requires Washington to fully inform them about developments related to Manbij.

“As a major partner against ISIS, we deserve to be involved in any agreement related to areas under our control,” said Ilham Ahmed, the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The SDF has the backing of the U.S.-led coalition in the fight against ISIS in Syria. The People’s Protection Units (YPG) forms the main element of the SDF.

Ankara and Washington have agreed on a “road map” for the flashpoint Syrian town, where Turkish government has insisted on removing YPG fighters.

Ahmed explains Syrian Kurds would be “very disappointed” if the U.S. went ahead with such plans with its NATO ally, Turkey.

“What kind of partnership would it be if the U.S., decided to side with an invading force, which is Turkey, against us in Manbij and elsewhere? It would certainly be unacceptable,” she told Ahval.

Details of the U.S.-Turkish agreement remain unclear, but Turkish officials have said the main elements of the agreement include removing the YPG from Manbij and forming a new governing body based on the ethnic composition of the town.

Other Syrian Kurdish leaders said that agreement would have a profound impact on the trajectory of the seven-year Syrian conflict.

“The Manbij agreement is a real turning point for Syria in general and the Kurdish region in particular,” said Fuad Aliko, a top official with the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and member of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Coalition.

KNC is the main opponent of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political wing of the YPG, which is the dominant Kurdish party in northern Syria.

“If the roadmap is successfully implemented on the ground, then it could be a blueprint for similar agreements in other parts of northern Syria.” Aliko told Ahval. “However, its failure could very likely drive Turkey to intervene militarily as it happened in Afrin.”

In March, Turkish military and allied Syrian rebels captured the Kurdish district of Afrin in northwestern Syria following a two-month campaign.

But local officials with the Manbij Military Council (MMC), a group linked to the YPG, said that they are willing to defend their city against any possible Turkish invasion.

“As the Manbij Military Council, we will remain in the city because we are from here. We are not going anywhere,” said Shervan Derwish, the spokesman of the MMC. “The YPG has already withdrawn from Manbij and its remaining military advisors are also withdrawing in the coming days. So Turkey has no justification to replace us.”

Derwish explained however that his council is not concerned about the U.S.-Turkish deal as it hasn’t concrete details have been revealed yet.

“The U.S.-led coalition hasn’t informed us about it, so we haven’t made a final position on this roadmap,” he said. “But it is certainly not like how the Turkish government is propagating it.”

Turkish government has said the Kurdish YPG will withdraw from Manbij within six months.

“The main goal of this roadmap is to remove the terror elements of YPG and PKK from Manbij for the permanent establishment of security and stability,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusolgu said following his meeting last week with his U.S. counterpart Mike Pompeo.

Ahmed of the SDC - an umbrella group for parties in northeastern Syria including the ruling PYD - said if the U.S. and Turkey have agreed on running observation points outside Manbij, then her group “would be fine with that as long as Turkish military will not enter Manbij.”

A joint statement that followed the meeting did not mention details, but said that the two officials “endorsed a road map… and underlined their commitment to its implementation, reflecting agreement to closely follow developments on the ground.”

In a statement released one day after the U.S.-Turkish agreement was announced in Washington, the Kurdish YPG said it would withdraw its military advisors from Manbij.

Manbij has been under the control of YPG and affiliated groups since it was liberated from ISIS in August 2016 with air support from the U.S.-led coalition.

An American delegation headed by the commander of the anti-ISIS US-led coalition Maj. General James Jarrard and veteran Middle East diplomat William Roebuck, visited Manbij after the agreement was announced and met with local military and civilian officials.

“The US delegation that visited us in Manbij assured continued cooperation with our council to secure more stability in the city,” Darwish of the MMC said. “ISIS is not entirely gone yet so we’re working with the Americans to ensure that ISIS is no longer capable of posing a threat.” he added.

Louay Mahmoud, a Manbij-based journalist, told Ahval that “the visit of the U.S. delegation was mostly to give the people of Manbij some assurance.”

“These individuals (Jarrard and Roebuck) have come to Manbij many times. They are familiar faces here and people trust them,” he said.

Manbij residents expressed fear from what could come next for their city amid such a fluid situation.

“Unlike other areas controlled by Turkey such as Jarablus, Azaz and Afrin where there’s lawlessness and chaos, Manbij has been enjoying an increased level of stability since ISIS was defeated ISIS (August) 2016.” said Saddam al-Hamad of the Manbij Media Center.

Several Syrian Kurdish leaders, including Ilham Ahmed, recently have said they are ready to have direct talks with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a move many observers believe is a response to the recent U.S.-Turkish agreement.

“I still believe that the Syrian conflict needs to end by intra-Syrian dialogue,” she told Ahval. “Obviously, the U.S. doesn’t have a clear strategy in Syria, so we need to see our options with other Syrian groups.”