CENTCOM pushes Trump to win the battle at the cost of losing the war

CENTCOM pushes Trump to win the battle at the cost of losing the war

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on March 2 that Ankara was resolved to march on the Syrian town of Manbij if the U.S. forces do not immediately evacuate the Kurdish militants there to east of the Euphrates. 

Çavuşoğlu made that statement after briefing Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee on recent developments in Syria.

Recalling earlier U.S. promises, he said that after clearing the Syrian town of Al-Bab of Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) militants, the Turkish military would continue to march on Manbij, hitting the militia of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) if they do not leave the town.

That is likely to escalate already existing tension between Turkey and the U.S., two NATO allies, over anti-ISIL alliances in Syria.

Manbij was taken from ISIL by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the ground, backed by the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in August 2016. The SDF was established with inspiration from CENTCOM, in order to avoid objections from Turkey, which criticizes the U.S. for “cooperating with one terrorist organization against another.” The YPG, which forms the backbone of the SDF, is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, and the PYD is the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated as a terrorist organization also by the U.S.

The Barack Obama administration had rejected an offer from Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan in 2014 to work against ISIL with the Free Syria Army (FSA), mainly consisting of Arab rebels, opting instead to work with the Kurdish militants.

With the help of arms, vehicles, intelligence and air support from CENTCOM, the YPG - which is little different from the PKK killing people in Turkey - has taken a great part of northeast Syria from ISIL.

Turkey is uneasy as the PYD publicly states that its aim is to achieve Kurdish autonomy on the areas it has cleared of ISIL, next to the Turkish borders where the PKK is active.

Ankara has asked the U.S. a number of times to keep its promise to take the YPG forces out of Manbij, which is a mostly Arab-populated town, not Kurdish.

Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu’s statement came after a remark from CENTCOM head of operations Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend saying he had personally asked the YPG and it promised that they would give no harm to Turkey.

Developments are at a crucial stage because U.S. President Donald Trump is about to make a key call on Washington’s strategy against ISIL. Actually it is not only against ISIL, he says, but radicalism and terrorism in the Middle East. A key stage of that war will be the battle to take Raqqa from ISIL, where it has established its headquarters.

Pointing out the earlier taking of towns like Jarablus, Dabiq and al-Bab from ISIL, together with the FSA, Turkish President Erdoğan has suggested to Trump that if the U.S. abandons the PYD/YPG as its main partner, Turkey and the U.S. can take Raqqa together with heavy weapons like tanks and howitzers on the ground provided by Ankara.

It is not possible for Townsend to be unaware of a testimony from former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter in Congress that the Obama administration wanted to give arms to the YPG despite knowing it has organic ties with the PKK.

So either Townsend is so naive that he is taking the words of the YPG over a major military ally, or he and his CENTCOM are so shortsighted that they will implement their original plans to win the battle (doubtful without heavy weapons) at the risk of losing the war. After all, the next step after Raqqa could be a Kurdish-Arab fight in areas taken from ISIL.

Tension between the two allies of Turkey and the U.S. is escalating, while Russia and Iran - two other major actors in Syria - are not standing by watching idly.