Analysis: Syria’s Manbij Town, Erdogan’s Hard Choices

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Following heavy clashes with ISIS terrorists, the Syrian Democratic Forces have encircled Manbij town in Syria’s Aleppo and cut off all access roads to it.

It is expected that the terrorist group goes to great lengths to save its last and most important strategic gateway with Turkey, because should ISIS loses Manbij, it no longer holds an area on Syrian-Turkish borders.

On Monday, ISIS launched an assault on the forces that aimed to recapture Manbij, inflicting heavy tolls on the US-backed forces. 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported that during a surprise attack, the terrorists of ISIS managed to seize back control of two villages of Kharbat Al-Russ and Jab Al-Ashra as well as three farms south of the encircled Manbij. At least 28 fighters from the US-backed People’s Protection Units have been killed in the assault. 

Launching offensive on Manbij from west, the Syrian Democratic Forces developed some two kilometers close to the town on Saturday but retreated under heavy ISIS firepower.

The spokesman for Syria Democratic Forces said that the Forces managed to push ISIS back and still kept the town under their encirclement.

Most of residents of Manbij are reportedly trapped inside the town as ISIS planted landmines around it. About 2,000 people have managed to flee the town, however. 

On the other side, the Syrian army managed to move 7 kilometers close to the ISIS-held strategic Tabqa Airport in Raqqa, near Euphrates River. But the terrorists pushed Syrian government’s forces back.

Tabqa town is 50 kilometers west of Raqqa, the stronghold of ISIS in Syria. It is the first town in Raqqa to go under major assault by government forces which are backed by Russian airstrikes.

Tabqa dam and airport have been in grasp of ISIS since 2014. 

According to the Syrian Observatory, the Syrian army made retreatment on Saturday, nullifying all of the progresses it made during past two weeks in Raqqa. In past two weeks, for the first time in two years the forces of Syrian army made their way into Raqqa.

ISIS-run Amaq New Agency has reported that the suiciders of the group attacked the Thawrah Oilfield in southern Tabqa, which a couple of days ago was recaptured by the Syrian army, and seized it back.

ISIS’ media also added that militants of ISIS took from the Syrian forces a checkpoint near a strategic intersection that goes to Raqqa.

The Syrian Observatory reported that ISIS aimed to send at least 300 fighters to Tabqa from Raqqa to protect the contested town.

Manbij and its strategic significance

Manbij is the most significant point connecting Syrian, Turkish, and Iraqi major cities. It is located 85 kilometers away from Aleppo, 45 kilometers from Jarablus, and 65 kilometers from Kobani. In other words, Manbij is the gate of Aleppo, Raqqa, Mosul, Baghdad and Turkey’s Gaziantep. Holding Manbij means holding this strategic gate.

The Kurds, Circassians and Turkmens account for 25 percent of Manbij town’s population while almost 75 percent of the town’s population are Sunni Arabs. Just like Sunni Arabs of Raqqa, they hold strong ethnic bonds with Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. 

Manbij is on the main ways from Turkey’s border to Raqqa and Aleppo. The roads that pass through Manbij are of vital importance for ISIS.

Militants, weapons, and food are sent to Raqqa from these roads, and also trained terrorists are sent from Raqqa to Turkey and then to Europe via these routes. Brett McGurk, the US president’s envoy to anti-ISIS battle has said that Paris and Brussels terrorist attackers went from Manbij to Turkey and then to Europe. 

The Kurds call their controlled regions Rojava which means western Kurdistan. The Kurds eye seizing control of Jarablus, the last city on Turkish borders yet held by ISIS.

The US and Turkey impede the Kurds’ entry to Manbij

Having in mind that Turkey sees the Kurds as a major threat to its security, any control over the crucial gate of Manbij by the Kurds close to PKK is considered a strategic loss for Ankara. 

For nearly a year the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been pressuring the US President Barack Obama to block liberation of Manbij by Kurdish People’s Protection Units forces.

Finally, Obama refused to do so.

In return, Erdogan is expected to avenge his failure in northern Syria on Kurds of Turkey.

In past two years, Turkey tried, in association with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to arrange an efficient opposition group containing the Arabs, Turkmens, and the anti-PYD Kurds in Syria in a bid to replace the current Kurdish forces as allies to the West in Syria.

Russia’s opposition to this coalition in which the Syrian opposition groups play the major role beside the coalition’s inability to keep the controlled areas have made Turkey’s plan meet with failure. On the other side, for the West, which is worried about its citizens from the terrorist threats, it is not attractive to see other militant groups gain power in the region. 

On June 1, the Military Council of Manbij, comprised of Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen, and Circassian forces, announced establishment to conclude Manbij liberation operation. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units and Women’s Protection Units are major parties of Manbij military council.

Erdogan repeatedly noted that he saw no difference between PYD and PKK, as both are blacklisted by Ankara as terror groups.

Erdogan several times called on Obama to avoid backing the Kurds. Last year, the Turkish president said it was a red line for Kurdish forces to pass Euphrates River. He warned that they would face Turkish forces’ fire should they crossed the river. However, now the Syrian Democratic Forces have gone much beyond the red line of Erdogan and cut off link of Manbij to Turkey’s borders. 

The Kurdish commanders said that Ankara and Washington strains on them kept the Kurds for the time being from entering Manbij. 

The Deputy US Secretary of State Tony Blinken during his visit to Turkey in an interview with CNN Türk said that the US and Turkey jointly watched closely Manbij operation. 

Blinken added that the US was sensitive about the Turkish concerns and supported Ankara about the case. He continued that PKK had to halt its terrorist attacks in Turkey, and must be disarmed and return to the negotiating table it left. Recent developments on Syria’s northern borders, anti-ISIS attacks by the Syrian Democratic Forces, and their possible advances towards northwestern Syria which would cut Turkish supply lines to ISIS and firm up positions of Kurdish forces in northern Syria and southern Turkey all run counter to Erdogan’s wishes and put him on the dilemma of choosing between favoring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s stay in power and seeing possible foundation of an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria.

An official in Turkey’s ruling party Justice and Development Party has said that despite being anti-Assad, Ankara was in accord with the Syrian president over opposition to foundation of autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, and Ankara could work with Bashar al-Assad on the case.

So, it is likely that in upcoming days Erdogan makes a shift in his anti-Assad rhetoric. 

In fact, Erdogan made his decision between two unfavorable choices of Assad’s stay in power and establishment of autonomous Kurdish region. He would accede to Assad’s remaining in power, otherwise, Turkey in the long run has to grapple with a great problem as a result of rise of a Western-backed autonomous Kurdish region in Syria. 

Due to effects of foreign decisions on the battlefields in Syria, it seems that Manbij has turned into a conflicting point of interests of relevant sides of the Syrian crisis.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy to Syria maintained that the US and Russia should work together to pave the way for end of conflicts in Syria, and to make the conditions favorable for all parties.

If all these issues are put beside each other, the outcome would be a notion: the Syrian crisis would witness deep developments in upcoming days.  

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