By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
On August 24th Syrian rebel groups and the Turkish army rolled across the border into Jarabulus in an operation dubbed “Euphrates Shield.” The operation was aimed at connecting Jarabulus with Syrian rebel controlled areas closer to Kilis and staking out a rebel corridor along the Turkish border. For the Turks it was also about moving south along the Euphrates to remove the presence of the YPG and its affiliated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that had taken Manbij two weeks before.
Turkish officials said clearly their intervention was aimed at “preventing the Kurdish PYD party from uniting Kurdish cantons.” The Prime Minister said: “The Syrian opposition [Free Syrian Army] is [now] settled in Jarabulus, and has started to control the villages and towns near the area. But the whole zone, including Jarabulus, needs to be cleared of the PYD and the YPG. There should be Syrians [living there].”
The problem is that the American policy has been to work with the YPG in its war on ISIS and the US was using airstrikes and support for the operation. In a June statement the Department of Defense U.S. Central Command spokesman Air Force Col. Pat Ryder noted: “In Syria, operations to expel ISIL fighters from Manbij city and surrounding areas began May 30, with U.S.-led coalition forces operating in support of Arab counter-ISIL forces largely comprised of local leaders and fighters. The operations are led by the Manbij Military Council of the Syrian Arab Coalition, an indigenous Arab force from Manbij seeking to reclaim their hometown from ISIL.” Furthermore: “Since the Manbij offensive began five days ago, more than 55 coalition airstrikes have supported Arab-led forces as they secured western lodgments on the Euphrates River, and extended the forward line of troops over 38.6 square miles.”
In July the Defense Department was heralding the success of the Manbij offensive. A statement noted, “As the U.S.-led coalition and Syrian fighters continue the battle to retake the city of Manbij in Syria, captured information reveals the Islamic State of Iraq and The Levant’s thought processes and plans, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Army Col. Christopher Garver told Pentagon reporters today.”
After the conquest of Manbij the SDF set its sites on Al-Bab to the West, continuing its march towards the Kurdish canton of Afrin on August 16. At the same time the US was saying: “These operations will be conducted in a manner consistent with the promise made between the two countries,” according to Pentagon spokesperson Adrian Rankine-Galloway who spoke with Anadolu news agency. At the time the “agreement” between Turkey and the US, who were apparently in constant communication, was that the Manbij offensive would be Arab-led and the YPG would withdraw when it was over.
The conquest of Manbij was also followed by reports on August 22 that the YPG-SDF was setting up a military council to rule Jarabulus once it was taken from ISIS (The commander of that council Abdulsettar Al-Cadiri, was mysteriously killed on August 24).
Enter the Turks and the need for “de-confliction”
After the Turkish offensive US Vice-President Joe Biden told reporters on August 25 that the YPG must withdraw across the Euphrates, retreating the 15 km they had pushed in to take Manbij and abandon the salient around it of numerous villages. Then Joe Biden told the YPG to leave Manbij. “We have made it absolutely clear to the elements that were part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the YPG that participated, that they must move back across the river. They cannot, will not, and under no circumstance get American support if they do not keep that commitment, period,” Biden said. Turkish experts had predicted that the US would not stand by its Kurdish allies if challenged by Turkey, which is more important to US interests. In his statement Biden also supported Syrian unity, as the US always had, but parroting a statement by Erdogan, who said: “Turkey is determined for Syria to retain its territorial integrity and will take matters into its own hands if required to protect that territorial unity.”
On August 26 John Kerry went even further in a sense, disregarding the Kurdish role the US had been hyping. “We are for a united Syria. We do not support an independent Kurd initiative. There has been some limited engagement, as everybody knows, with a component of Kurd fighters on a limited basis, and we cooperated very closely with – with Turkey specifically to make sure that there was a clearer understanding of the rules by which that engagement would take place. They understand that. Now that Manbij city has been liberated, I think there are other expectations of what will take place, but we understand the sensitivities of our friends in Turkey with respect to this. Vice President Biden just visited and had lengthy conversations about it.” Compared to the Pentagon statements which openly discussed US relations with the YPG and SDF, Kerry minimized the Kurdish role, speaking of it as “limited.”
Along the road from Jarabulus to Manbij clashes were taking place between Turkish forces, Syrian rebels and SDF. A Turkish tank was destroyed, there were conflicting reports 30 civilian casualties and videos showed some SDF prisoners being abused. It was clear that sooner or later the SDF would be in deeper conflict. But, despite early claims it would stay, the YPG seemed to have suggested it had obeyed the Americans and withdrawn, only to have reports that Manbij was being reinforced. The situation was confused on August 28th, as the Turks and their allies advanced.
On August 29, as Turkish forces and Syrian rebel factions close in on Manbij, the US DoD is concerned: “While we are closing monitoring reports of clashes south of Jarablus – where ISIL is no longer located – between the Turkish armed forces, some opposition groups and units that are affiliated with the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), we want to make clear that we find these clashes unacceptable…This is an already crowded battle space. Accordingly, we are calling on all armed actors to stand down immediately and take appropriate measures to deconflict,” said Peter Cook, the Pentagon Press Secretary.
Turkey, which is close to the US, and Syrian rebel groups supported by the US are now clashing with other groups who have been supported by the US. Der Speigel noted: “Pentagon-supported units, such as the Hamza Division, the Sultan Murad Brigade and the Levante Front,” were fighting alongside the Turks.
So was the US in a situation like it had been in March when the L.A Times reported “in Syria, militias armed by the Pentagon fight those armed by the CIA.” In that occasion, “CIA-armed militia called Fursan al Haq, or Knights of Righteousness, was run out of the town of Marea, about 20 miles north of Aleppo, by Pentagon-backed Syrian Democratic Forces moving in from Kurdish-controlled areas to the east.”
Had the US not learned, or was there such a clusterf— in policymaking and competition between the Pentagon, CIA and State Department, that different arms of the US octopus were so out of synch, that they were backing different groups who were not only at cross-purposes but actually fighting eachother. It is, of course, one thing to have relations with one Syrian rebel group in southern Syria and a different one in northern Syria that don’t see eye to eye. The US has relations with Baghdad and Erbil, who are at cross purposes sometimes, the US does a deal with Iran while working with the Saudis and having close relations with Israel, all of whome ostensibly don’t get along.
The statements by the Pentagon suggesting “de-confliction” seem to indicate all is not well, and that the defense department is not happy about what State and CIA are doing and wants quiet near Jarabulus, instead of the Turks and rebels waltzing into a city that hundreds of lives were lost taking and potentially alienating the YPG before the Raqqa push. Brett McGurk, the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL tweeted Defense department updates about the “lethal” threat of ISIS and why there should be no blows between allies. But that hasn’t prevented many people wondering, as Elizabeth Tzurkov did on Twitter, about why “CIA-backed rebels (FSA) detained Pentagon-backed militiamen (SDF) near Jarablus today.”
What comes next?
Many in the YPG see US actions as a betrayal. Even though the US has stood by them, for instance in mid-August during clashes in Hasakeh when the US threatened Bashar al-Assad’s airforce to stop bombing Hasakeh after clashes with the YPG, there is a loss of trust. At the same time Turkey also has little trust for American intentions. ISIS has been given breathing space as the YPG and SDF must shift focus to the Jarabulus sector and ISIS members melt away from the area. Assad also would be happy to see Turkey backed groups fighting American backed Kurds.
Russia has a hand in both pots because Turkey coordinated its offensive with Russia and the US has been been meeting with the Russians. From their point of view, which has consistently called for the Kurds to be part of the “solution” in Syria, there is a problem with Kurdish-Turkish tensions in Syria, but if some of it gives Assad breathing space and makes him seem like the adult running the country, it is good for policy. Turkey was already supporting groups like Faylaq al-Sham, so the Russians don’t see much difference with an overt Turkish presence.
There are questions now about the potential of conflict now between Syrian rebel groups and Kurds in Afrin. If the Manbij salient falls it will have represented months of YPG effort for naught, and prodding to attack Raqqa may be set back. Whatever happens it would be good for the various arms of the US government to try to untangle the cluster—- that has resulted.
The Pentagon’s support for the YPG has been based on pragmatism; finding the most effective anti-ISIS group. The State Department has been keen on finding “viable Sunni opposition” groups. The CIA program of supporting the rebels has been fraught with disaster and failure from its start in 2012-2013. Salacious reports at reputable news organizations such as Reuters and Newsweek emerged of CIA-backed rebels “fighting alongside al-Qaeda”, or rebels surrendering their weapons, or training programs that produced few men in the field. $500 million was spent to train “four or five” fighters, alleged one report. Even guns meant for the Syrians ended up on the black market in Jordan. It was described as a “failure” by the administration in the fall of 2015. “We’re going to take a sort of operational pause,” said Christine Wormuth, an undersecretary of defense.
For the better part of the year it seems Defense and CIA have been at odds. A report noted, “Two Department of Defense officials told The Daily Beast that they are not eager to support the rebels in the city of Aleppo because they’re seen as being affiliated with al Qaeda in Syria, or Jabhat al Nusra. The CIA, which supports those rebel groups, rejects that claim, saying alliances of convenience in the face of a mounting Russian-led offensive have created marriages of battlefield necessity, not ideology.”
The problem is that while necessity may underpin support, the support of the YPG achieved results, but that could be undone as the US is seen as unreliable and the US appears to choose Turkey and abandon the Kurds. That may not be the case on the ground. One wonders if State and CIA are having a bit of joy over the Pentagon program being set-back by the Turkish endeavor. Either way it seems that the supposed “agreements” mentioned in July, were not adhered to and no one fully informed either the YPG or those involved with the Manbij push that in the end it would unravel. Can de-confliction happen? Of course, but it means applying US pressure and influence that is in short supply.