Turkey is currently fighting on two fronts but the real battlefront remains in Syria and particularly in Manbij. Indeed, the Manbij operation might be decisive for the Kurdish-U.S. alliance as well as Turkey-U.S. cooperation.
Why Manbij is important
Manbij has become the new epicenter of the fight against so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Both the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by the U.S, and the Syrian regime supported by Russian airstrikes are moving into Manbij. Manbij is in the Aleppo province, but has been under ISIS control for two years.
The operation’s ultimate goal is to close a strategic pocket for ISIS between the Turkish border and the city of Raqqa in central Syria. Raqqa has symbolic value as it was the first province the Syria regime lost in the opposition in early 2013 – embodying Damascus’ lack of control. Raqqa was highly coveted by ISIS, as it is the Syrian regime’s old bastion, and home to the Syrian air force, with important defensive capacities.
By leading an offensive at the same time, the SDF and the Syrian regime are closing in on ISIS. Indeed, ISIS will need to fight on four different fronts at once: north and south-west of Raqqa; around Manbij, near the Turkish border with Syria, and in Fallujah in Iraq. However, the jihadist organization cannot fight back on every front, and will likely lose more territory.
Located only 25 miles south of the Turkish border, Manbij represents a strategic centre for ISIS where it has established a route to smuggle weapons, assets and foreign fighters from Europe and Asia.
Recapturing Manbij would therefore isolate ISIS, and deprive it of its last supply route from Turkey and considerably weaken its ability to launch attacks. This would be the first step towards taking back control over and reconstructing an economically devastated country.
Thus, taking back Raqqa and Manbij is militarily and politically key for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Conquering ISIS’ first stronghold would strengthen the Syrian regime’s image as an effective military force, capable of defeating the jihadist organization.
Kurdish tensions at the heart of Turkey’s war in Syria
The Manbij offensive has broader implications at the geopolitical level and most of all on Turkish-Kurdish relations. Indeed, the U.S-backed SDF is mainly composed of Kurdish PYD (Syrian PKK affiliate Democratic Union Party) and YPG (People’s Protection Units militia) and the group has seen a string of victories.
Turkey looks unfavourably on Kurdish military victories, especially considering how close Manbij is to the Turkish border. Turkey has always considered Kurdish independence as a bigger threat to its territorial integrity than ISIS. Turkey’s principal fear is that the Kurds will link the northern Syrian area of Afrin with Kobane.
Indeed, the predominance of Kurdish fighters in the SDF might raise already existing Kurdish-Turkish tensions in the areas near the Turkish border; especially concerning issues of autonomy in northern Syria.
Several times, Turkey declared that Kurdish forces crossing westwards over the Euphrates was a red line. To Turkish president Erdogan, such an action would be evidence of the PYD using the fight against ISIS as a pretext for Kurdish expansionism.
On June 3rd, Kurdish fighters did indeed cross the Euphrates. Such action should have triggered an aggressive reaction from Turkey. In order to reassure its ally, the U.S. assured that the YPG would leave Manbij once the operation is completed, leaving the area to the Arab majority.
Time to cut a deal?
Turkey is on its guard, and does not blindly trust the new U.S-Kurdish strategy. While some say that the liberation of Syria from ISIS supersedes efforts at Kurdish unification, others cannot deny Kurdish aspirations to set up an autonomous, federal region.
In any case, if Turkey continues to lock itself into this conflict, only two bad options may remain: either using its own troops on two fronts against ISIS and the Kurds, or stop supporting the U.S.-led coalition, and thus incur international repercussions.
Currently, the Turkish strategy to insulate the Syrian-Turkish border from all fighters regardless of origin is failing. While Ankara is in constant internal conflict with the PKK and opposed to its ally’s ally, the YPG, Turkey might have to cut a deal to remain relevant in the fight against ISIS.
Indeed, Turkish-backed rebels have been losing ground in the north against ISIS and especially in the Azaz corridor, a key lifeline for the rebels, some 75 km west of Manbij.
Without this deal, Turkey might indeed lose everything since every attempt to push back ISIS from Azaz has been a complete failure. The SDF seems to be the only viable ally on the ground and appears as a game changer in the future of the Syria war and the broader geopolitical restructuration of the Middle East.