Turkish deadline for Manbij long overdue

Turkish deadline for Manbij long overdue

It was June 4 when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reached an agreement for the withdrawal of the YPG, which is considered the Syrian branch of the PKK by Ankara, from the Syrian town of Manbij toward the East of the Euphrates.

The parameters of the road were not revealed to the public, however, following the announced compromise several news articles that carried bylines from Ankara and quoting “unnamed but reliable sources” suggested the following: 

According to the road map, which will take effect on June 5, the two sides will complete the preparatory work in 10 days. Between day 11 and day 30, Turkish and U.S. delegations will meet to discuss the steps for the withdrawal of the YPG. From day 30 onwards, the YPG will start withdrawing. The whole process will be completed on day 90 which is Sept. 5. 

Some stories included details of how Ankara had pushed and become successful in getting a three-month schedule for the implementation of the road map, while Washington was initially insisting on a six-month schedule.

Eventually the U.S. had to accept Sept. 5 as a deadline, however they asked the Turkish side not to talk about the agreed timeline publicly amid fears of media making a big fuss of a possible delay. 

Meanwhile, since day one, the U.S. side has always refused to give a timeline drawing attention to the “conditions-based nature” of the agreement. According to Washington, the timeline for implementation would depend on the pace of the developments on the ground.

However, the U.S. officials somewhat endorsed the three phases of implementation which was leaked to the press by the Turkish press even before the Çavuşoğlu-Pompeo summit. 

The first phase was obviously about the withdrawal of the YPG to the east of the Euphrates. In the second phase the security of Manbij would be provided by combined patrols of Turkish and American soldiers inside the city. And in the final phase the local city councils would be re-structured with respect to demographic representation of the different ethnic groups where Kurdish groups not affiliated with the the YPG/PYD line would also have seats. 

Undoubtedly, the last phase would be the gist of the matter. According to the Turks, existing Manbij Military Council and Manbij Civil Council were both run by the PKK ideology and therefore should completely be abolished. The U.S. side, per contra, was talking about reforming the existing structures in a way to meet Turkish demands. 

Last but not the least there was the future of Rojava, which Ankara refuses to recognize by name because for Kurds it is the synonym for a de-facto self-rule in northeast Syria and rather refers to the region as “the east of the Euphrates.”

Just as he walked out of the meeting with Pompeo, Çavuşoğlu argued that pushing the YPG out of the east of Euphrates was also part of the deal with the Americans. However, the U.S. officials not only denied such a commitment but also insisted that the road map was a very narrow document, not one that refers to future political settlements. 

In short, both sides were trying to sell the agreement to their public opinions with a twist. It was a success for Turkey because the YPG would be wiped off from the map in Syria! It was a success for the United States because a major risk for clashing with a NATO ally was averted, had it happened it would shake all their plans in Syria.

In this way, the U.S. had also prevented to become a punch bag in the election campaign of the Turkish government in the run up to the June 24 elections. 

A few weeks after the endorsement of the road map, we saw Turkish troops with flags starting patrols in the demarcation line outside Manbij. Then we all forgot about Manbij when the case of jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson tumultuously took over the Turkey-U.S. agenda. 

Sept. 5, the deadline that Turkey suggested for the conclusion of the implementation of the road map, is in two days. Although even the second phase – combined patrols in Manbij – did not kick off. 

For the last three weeks Defense Secretary James Mattis has been bragging about the arrival of the equipment needed to train Turkish troops in Ankara. Do not be mistaken, the equipment is there, not the training yet. Furthermore, it is hard to believe that the two NATO armies which have done plenty of joint operations/exercises over the years will need months to coordinate a simple patrol in a small piece of land like Manbij

Washington is clearly relieved that Manbij is not a priority in Syria anymore. And we have not heard criticism from Ankara for the pace of the implementation of the road map either. It is also understandable that both capitals are now more focused on the possible Idlib showdown.

All of this on the other hand demonstrates that the Americans have managed to pursue their own timeline for the implementation of the road map. It seems they will be able to defer phases two and three for a few months more. That timing will also coincide with Pentagon’s mandate to come up with a review on Syria policy to appease President Donald Trump, who has been demanding total withdrawal. 

The signs are there; the U.S. national security bureaucracy would try and prevent a total disengagement from Syria by the end of the year. They might come up with some cosmetic steps to calm the president.

However, it is unthinkable that the U.S. leaves Russia and Iran as kingmakers in the Middle East just like that. And clearly, the U.S. will not yet give up on the 50,000 militants of the SDF, the backbone of which have been the YPG and YPJ.