Afrin, Manbij and east of the Euphrates
Turkey looks set to concentrate on the town of Manbij in eastern Syria as the target of an upcoming second phase of “Operation Olive Branch.” The United States, however, has declared that its troops will not abandon the town. Does this mean that Turkish and U.S. troops will engage in a fight? Could the U.S. sacrifice Turkey to help its new-found allies, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which even American officials struggle to deny are indeed just the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)?
It is rather strange, but the domestic opponents of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cannot utter a word against “Operation Olive Branch” even if they oppose it. There appears to be a national consensus anyway that the operation was a necessity, not only for the existential security threat a YPG-PKK belt along the Turkish Syrian border would pose but also to provide a secure area to resettle at least some of the over 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, who have become a serious burden on Ankara.
Did not the Americans once promise Turkey that the YPG-PKK militants would retreat from Manbij and other areas on the west of Euphrates? Did not the U.S. know well that the Turks would not accept Manbij’s continued occupation by the YPG-PKK? General Joseph Votel recently said U.S. troops would not be pulling back from Manbij, raising the looming possibility of clashes between Turkish and American troops in Syria. Such a development would mark a significant shift and we really would be in unchartered territory. Who could face such a high and explosive risk?
What if today’s “ruthless dictator” Bashar al-Assad of Syria becomes tomorrow’s “brother” of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as he was once before? What if the two countries collaborate, with the Russians playing the role of “older brother,” in moving against the YPG to secure Syria’s national and territorial integrity? Such an idea may appear insane today but don’t be surprised if it becomes tomorrow’s reality.
Already, many “strategists” in Turkey – who I doubt are even familiar with the region – are popping up to suggest that “liberating” Afrin will not be enough. They say that Manbij is the most important milestone, the real target that must be taken the “separatist elements” east of the Euphrates, clearing Turkey’s entire border with Syria of the PKK. Those “strategists” consider such an operation a requirement for the eradication of an “existential threat” targeting Turkey.
Of course, clearing the YPG-PKK from Afrin would probably help reduce terrorist infiltrations from that area. However, as those “strategists” rightly underline, the remaining 600-kilometer-long Syrian border with Turkey is under the control of the PYD, which aspires to establish an independent Kurdish state. Turkey cannot move on the PYD-state - or the so-called Rojava-Democratic Federation of Northern Syria - alone. That is why there has been rampant speculation that Turkey is pondering ways to find a soft rehash of “brotherly” ties with the al-Assad regime. Interesting, is it not?
Turkey’s very clever “strategists” claim that in order to maintain its presence east of the Euphrates, the U.S. might engage in a bargain with Ankara and consequently hand Manbij over to Turkey. Such a move, however, would still not be able to diffuse the existential threat posed to Turkey from eastern side of the Euphrates. Even if Turkey takes Manbij and puts an end to the possibility of being besieged by a YPG-PKK corridor, the U.S. would still be arming and training the YPG-PKK east of the Euphrates. So in the end the YPG-PKK would only continue to get stronger.
Of course, if people were able to freely express their ideas about whether military operations are necessary then perhaps Turkey could find more effective ways of diffusing the threats it faces.