The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss reports that suggest now that the US is pulling out of Syria, Turkey is readying a military incursion into northern Syria. Recent footage released by a Turkish news agency shows a convoy of army vehicles approaching the Syrian border.
Is Erdogan about to enter Syria, wipe out the Kurds and occupy the north of the country?
Damascus says it has deployed troops to the city of Manbij, the focal point of a tense standoff between Kurds and Turkey, as the government continues attempts to reassert control over the strategic border area in Syria’s north.
The Kurdish YPG militia on Friday called on Damascus to secure Manbij, located close to the border with Turkey. Ankara earlier said it plans to conduct an “anti-terrorist operation” around the city, with the YPG being the target.
In response, Damascus said its troops were already in the north and raised the flag in the “area of Manbij.” In a statement from the general staff broadcast by the Syrian media, the top brass said their army was determined to “crush terrorism and defeat all invaders and occupiers” as well as to provide security for all Syrian citizens.
Just how far-reaching the Syrian deployment is and if it’s taking place at all is yet to be confirmed by other sources, as is the Syrian Army troops’ arrival in the city proper.
Skeptical over the statement from Damascus, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the “flag-raising” a “psychological action.” He, however, acknowledged that there would be no need for the Turkish Army op in Manbij if the Kurds pull out of the city.
Meanwhile, Turkey-backed militants opposed to both the government and the Kurds said they were moving fighters towards Manbij and were prepared to start an operation there, if necessary.
Damascus is trying to assert full control over Syrian territory, a goal that remains elusive despite significant progress over the year. Among the contested zones are the province of Idlib, some Kurdish-controlled areas and a region on the border with Jordan, where a US military outpost is located.
The Kurds and the central government have remained mostly neutral towards each other over the years of the conflict and occasionally allied against jihadist groups. The Manbij maneuver does not make them immediate allies, but with Kurds de facto asking protection from the Syrian government, Damascus now seems in a stronger position to negotiate the degree of autonomy the Kurds would have after the political transition in the country. They currently control large swaths of territory east of Euphrates River, which is rich in oil, and crude revenues would be crucial for Syria’s post-war reconstruction.
Manbij became the focus of tense war of words earlier this month, after Erdogan said he was prepared to order a new “anti-terrorist operation” targeting the Kurds. He said the move was necessary because the US failed to make the YPG remove their fighters from the area, despite promises to do so.
The US, a key ally of the Kurds for the past several years, has meanwhile decided to withdraw its troops from Kurd-controlled areas in Syria, including Manbij. The withdrawal promises to be a game-changer for Kurds, who relied on American backing for protection against Turkey, but it is also yet to happen.
Ankara has amassed a fighting force near its southern border over the past few weeks but stopped short of launching the promised offensive. Turkey sees all Kurdish militias as an extension of its domestic Kurdish insurgency and attacked them repeatedly in both Syria and Iraq.
The situation is to be discussed on Saturday by top Turkish and Russian officials at a meeting in Moscow. Russia, a backer of Damascus in its fight against jihadist groups, said the deployment in Manbij may be a good sign that stabilization of Syria is progressing. But a spokesman for the Kremlin indicated that the outcome would depend on how the talks in Moscow unfold.
On Christmas Eve the White House announced in a statement that President Trump is open to a “potential meeting in the future” with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The statement noted Turkey’s president had formally invited Trump to meet in 2019, though nothing specific or definite has been planned.
This comes after it was revealed that in a Dec. 14 phone call between the two leaders Trump said the US was “done” with Syria. Trump’s senior aides later revealed the decision for a “full” and “immediate” pullout of the some 2000+ American military personnel training and advising Kurdish-Arab SDF forces in north-east Syria was made after the phone call, and curiously the U.S. State Department approved the sale of $3.5 billion in patriot missiles to Turkey the day after.
According to a senior administration official who spoke to CNN, Trump told Erdogan, “OK, it’s all yours. We are done,” in reference to Syria. The president sought assurances from Erdogan that Turkey would finish off remnant ISIS cells in eastern Syria, per the CNN report:
A senior White House official said Erdogan gave Trump his “word” that Turkey would finish off ISIS.
“In the call on Friday, Erdogan said to the President, ‘In fact, as your friend, I give you my word in this,’” the senior White House official said.
While giving a speech last Friday Erdogan revealed some of the details of the call, saying, “During a conversation I had with Mr. Trump — he said ‘ISIS, can you clear ISIS from this area?'” Erdogan recalled further: “We did it before, and we can again as long as we have logistic support from you… And so they began pulling out.” Erdogan added: “Within the framework of the phone call we had with Mr. Trump, we have started preparing plans for operations to clear the ISIS elements still within Syria.”
Trump, for his part, subsequently confirmed in a weekend tweet: “I just had a long and productive call with President Erdogan of Turkey. We discussed ISIS, our mutual involvement in Syria, & the slow & highly coordinated pullout of U.S. troops from the area. After many years they are coming home. We also discussed heavily expanded Trade.”
Meanwhile a major Turkish Army and Turkish-backed rebel assault on the key Syrian Kurdish stronghold of Manbij is imminent. Turkey has been reported over the past days to be mustering large forces, including hundreds of vehicles and troops surrounding the northwestern Syrian town, around Manbij.
Turkey has long demanded US advisers to withdraw and to clear the town of armed Syrian Kurdish groups, specifically the YPG, which forms the core of the US-backed SDF but which Ankara sees as an extension of the outlawed terror group, the PKK.
Bloomberg described the military build-up, filmed by Turkish state media, as follows:
The convoy of around 200 vehicles, including howitzers, armored personnel carriers and artillery, advanced to reinforce the military’s presence in areas close to Manbij, TRT said on Sunday. They were joined by forces of the Free Syrian Army, which has backed Turkish offensives against Syrian Kurdish militants, state-run Anadolu Agency said Monday.
However, as a potential bloodbath is set to ensue, on Tuesday morning Turkey’s foreign minister announced the United States has agreed to complete a previously discussed “roadmap” for the removal of all Kurdish militia fighters from the Northern Syrian town before American forces clear out.
Though the US side has yet to confirm Turkey’s latest claims, it appears the handover of Manbij to Turkey has begun following prior threats from Erdogan to “cleanse” the region of all Kurdish resistance.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.