The Manbij timeline: Call it a coincidence
The Syrian town of Manbij was taken back from the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) in the late afternoon of Aug. 12.
The women of Manbij, who had been subjected to the worst threats, including sex slavery, were the ones who most enjoyed being rid of ISIL barbarism; they burned their black chadors that they had been forced to wear.
The offensive on the small but strategically located town near the Turkish border was launched on May 31 by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) under the coordination and backing of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).
The backbone of the SDF is the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the Syrian branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has been waging an armed campaign against Turkey since 1984, during which time more than 40,000 people have been killed. That is why the Turkish government considers the PYD/YPG terror organizations and has been objecting to the U.S. government cooperating with them as partners against ISIL.
This has been a major problem between Turkey and the U.S. as two NATO allies. The U.S. has not officially acknowledged the declared links between the PYD and the PKK, which it denounces as a terrorist organization, because it needs ground forces to support the air strikes on ISIL. The SDF was actually put together by CENTCOM partly as a PR campaign to soothe Turkish concerns with the inclusion of some Sunni Arab tribes acceptable by Turkey. Yet, the U.S. administration promised Turkey to not let the PYD take control over the dominantly Arab town of Manbij and respect Turkey’s demand that the PYD would not settle on the west bank of the Euphrates so as to establish a corridor along the Turkish border ethnically cleansed of all others but Kurds.
The issue was discussed during a 70-minute phone call between U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan on May 18.
At this point it should be reminded that the Turkish military’s hands were not totally free in Syria. That was because of the Russian presence there and the crisis which erupted after the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey on Nov. 24, 2015, for violating the border with Syria. So, not being able to use its Air Force in Syria against both ISIL and the PKK/PYD, the Turkish government has been relying on the 2nd Army based in the eastern city of Malatya to seal its borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran with long range artillery, tanks and mechanized infantry units. It’s worth mentioning that the strategic İncirlik Air Base used by the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL and the NATO-operated strategic U.S. Missile Shield early warning radar are also under the 2nd Army’s command.
Coming back to the timeline, one day after the Obama-Erdoğan phone conversation on May 18, U.S. Gen. Joseph Votel of CENTCOM met Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish officials in Baghdad and Erbil.
On May 20, he flew to Syria, presumably to the PYD-held town of Kobane near the Turkish border, to have meetings with the PYD and also some Arab tribes which agreed to be part of the SDF.
On May 21 Votel first traveled to İncirlik and then to Ankara. There he carried out talks with Gen. Yaşar Güler, the deputy chief of Turkish General Staff, on the Manbij operation.
On May 22 the Turkish media reported that Air Force Commander Gen. Abidin Ünal had himself taken part in an operation against PKK camps in the Kandil Mountains in northern Iraq after taking off from the Akıncı Base near Ankara and got a detailed briefing in the Diyarbakır Air Base near the Iraqi and Syrian borders, also under the responsibility of the 2nd Army command. The message was clear: Turkey would agree to not act against the PYD since its ally needed them during the operation but would not stop striking the PKK with such a consideration that the U.S. could need them in the Manbij operation.
On May 23 Turkey launched a major military exercise, Efes 2016, near the Aegean city of İzmir with the participation of NATO countries like the U.S., the U.K., Germany and Poland and non-NATO countries like Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Pakistan. The exercise focused on combined operations against terrorist acts, particularly liberating settlements from terrorist occupation.
On May 26, the Turkish National Security Board (MGK) convened with an agenda including the Manbij operation and the PYD opening offices in Germany, France, the Czech Republic and Sweden, with no mention of the U.S. The worry increased in Ankara over whether the U.S. would keep its promises to pull the PYD east of the Euphrates once Manbij was taken from ISIL.
In June, as the Manbij operation continued with little success, two important developments took place in Turkish foreign policy which were likely to lead to changes in its Syria policy as well.
First it was announced on June 26 that Turkey and Israel had finalized their talks in Rome for a normalization of their relations.
Secondly, the next day, on June 27, it was revealed in Moscow that Russian President Vladimir Putin had accepted a letter from Erdoğan to put relations back on track. The deal was closed with the mediation of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev on June 24 in Tashkent during the Shanghai Cooperation summit.
That was major for Turkish policy in Syria.
On June 28, ISIL hit Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, killing 45 people.
On July 8, a previously unknown Syrian outlawed organization called the Tel Hamis Brigades claimed they had killed Fehman Huseyin, aka Bahoz Erdal, near Qamishli next to the Turkish border. It was never confirmed but Erdal, being one of the highest military chiefs of the PKK, was suspected by Turkish intelligence of being the major link between the PKK headquarters in Kandil and the Manbij operation and might be in charge of the coordination of the YPG/PYD forces there.
On July 15, a junta from within the Turkish military attempted a military coup to overthrow the government. They were dispersed and crushed by forces loyal to the government and the parliament, as all parties and a dominating majority of people stood against them. Some 300 people, mostly resisting civilians, were killed by the coup plotters.
The plotters could not kidnap president Erdoğan and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım but kidnapped most of the top brass. Gen. Güler and Gen. Ünal were among them. The Akıncı Base near Ankara was the plotters’ operation HQ. The F-16s that bombed the country’s own parliament had taken off from bases in Ankara and Diyarbakır. Some 5,000 commandos who are busy in the anti-PKK fight were planned to be transported from the 2nd Army command region to the capital Ankara to occupy key government offices, but they were stopped by loyal soldiers and police forces.
The commander of the 2nd Army was arrested the next day for taking part in the plot. The commander of the İncirlik Air Base was as well, after being denied asylum by the U.S. More than 2,000 military officers of different ranks were sacked from the army and arrested, while in the Air Force and Navy Forces nearly half of the generals are now under arrest - in NATO’s second biggest army.
The chief of staff of the U.S. immediately called up Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar right after he was saved from his kidnappers, not to offer help or say he was sorry for what had happened to his brother in arms, but to ask why the electricity was off at İncirlik and why it was closed to flights, as it was being reported in the press and not being denied so far.
On July 28, U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper said Turkey had harmed the fight against ISIL by arresting the interlocutors of the U.S. On the same day Gen. Votel said he was concerned that some of his contacts were in jail.
Not only the Turkish government but also the opposition was furious that top U.S. officials sounded as if they were sorry that the coup attempt failed.
On the Turkish government’s (and opposition’s) accusations that the plot was masterminded by Fethullah Gülen, the Islamist preacher living in Pennsylvania, and implemented by his followers who had covertly climbed into key positions in the military over decades, Graham Fuller, a former executive of the CIA, said Gülen was only a man of peace. He was among those who helped Gülen reside in the U.S.
On Aug. 9, Erdoğan visited Putin in St. Petersburg and thanked him for calling him up on the second day of the coup attack in solidarity, two days before Turkey’s closest NATO allies, the U.S. and Germany; German Chancellor Angela Merkel had visited Turkey four times in six months, only for the Syrian migrant issue.
By coincidence or not, the PKK stopped all its acts of terror, which claimed many lives, after July 15, only to start them again on Aug. 10.
On Aug. 12, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited Ankara and said he was happy to see Turkey and Russia were on the way to normalization.
The same day Manbij was finally cleared of ISIL occupation.
Ankara expressed satisfaction for that but immediately asked the U.S. to pull the PYD out of the town and east of the Euphrates, as was promised. The Pentagon said Turkey had a point there, since Manbij was a dominantly Arab populated town; Kurds were a minority, like Circassians.
Now Ankara impatiently waits for the U.S. government to honor its promise.