If one is to go by leaks to the media as well as official statements out of Ankara, Turkey and the United States have essentially worked out a “road map” for Washington-backed Kurdish fighters to leave the northern Syrian city of Manbij near the Turkish border. Accordingly, once the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — which Turkey considers a terrorist organization and an existential threat to its security — evacuate Manbij, Turkish forces would move in and work with US forces already there to provide “stability and security” in the city. The next stage would be to negotiate the YPG's expulsion from lands east of the Euphrates River along Turkey’s border with Syria.
The only problem with this optimistic scenario is that the details are flowing from the Turkish side, while Washington is holding its cards close its chest. A joint statement issued following technical talks May 25 was shorter on specifics than what reporters are being told in Turkey.
The statement read, “The Turkish-US Working Group on Syria met today in Ankara to continue ongoing conversations regarding Syria and other issues of mutual interest and cooperation. The two sides outlined the main contours of a Road Map for their further cooperation in ensuring security and stability in Manbij.” It also noted that Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will consider the recommendations of the working group when they meet June 4 in Washington.
News that the two countries had produced a “road map” is not new, of course. Cavusoglu had referred to one on a number of occasions, but his remarks needed clarifying. When he suggested in March that the sides had arrived at an agreement, it was not fully corroborated by Washington. Cavusoglu had to backpedal, saying he did not mean “an agreement was reached,” but that an “understanding had been reached.”
Cavusoglu also mentioned the road map in April, after meeting with Pompeo on the sidelines of a NATO foreign ministers meeting, adding a telling caveat when informing reporters about their talks. Cavusoglu said the YPG would leave Manbij according to the understanding arrived at with Washington, but warned that Turkey would intervene unilaterally, as it had done in Afrin and Qandil previously, if the YPG did not depart.
Regarding the latter part of the statement, Cavusoglu was referring to Operation Olive Branch, mounted by Turkey in January against the YPG in the Syrian city of Afrin, and the frequent operations Turkey conducts against the Kurdistan Workers Party in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq. Cavusoglu's remarks thus indicated that Ankara was retaining the military option in Manbij, which clearly suggests that nothing had been finalized with Washington.
Western diplomats remain doubtful despite the joint statement following the May 25 talks. “Arriving at an arrangement over Manbij and the lands east of the Euphrates would mean that Turkey and the US have recalibrated their relationship and restored mutual confidence,” a diplomat told Al-Monitor, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to his sensitive position. He went on to note the multiple problems that continue to overshadow Turkish-American relations and the less-than-friendly climate between the two capitals.
“It’s unlikely that Washington would want to appear to have caved in to Ankara, especially in light of Turkish military threats, without gaining substantial concessions in return,” the source said.
Many diplomats also argue that Washington will not commit to a concrete position before the Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for June 24. Most opposition commentators in Turkey believe promises by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to send the military to Manbij to expel the YPG, with or without US support, had merely been populist bluster.
For instance, Can Atakli of the opposition daily Sozcu wrote that all the talk out of Ankara about an operation against Manbij has been toned down in the lead-up to the elections. “Until the snap elections, Manbij was our ‘red line,’ and the presence of American soldiers there was not important. We would enter one night and get rid of them all [the YPG],” Atakli argued in his column, before going on to question why no one mentions this anymore. “Was it that we knew all along we could not go there, even if we wanted to, and the decision to call snap elections provided an excuse [to downplay this topic]?”
There is also growing agreement among Turkish analysts that a military option in Manbij would be difficult for Turkey to pursue. Many say the favorable conditions in Afrin for Operation Olive Branch — which got the green light from Moscow while the United States looked away because it had no forces there — do not exist in Manbij.
In an article for Gercek Gundem, Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Naim Baburoglu pointed to what Turkey was up against. “The operation against the YPG in Afrin may have been highly successful but Ankara’s ultimate aims in Syria will only be fulfilled if Turkey can extend its reach to Manbij and lands east of the Euphrates,” Baburoglu wrote.
He added, however, that the front against Turkey had grown larger following the Afrin operation, with the express determination of France and Britain — Washington’s partners in Syria — as well the EU, to support the YPG. “As Turkey heads fast toward more isolation in the West, it has to produce new strategies and avoid steps that will also cast a shadow on its success in Afrin,” Baburoglu said.
Oytun Orhan, coordinator for Syrian studies at the Ankara-based Middle East Strategic Research Center, also underlined the difficulty facing Turkey in northern Syria. He wrote recently that the discrepancy between the Turkish and US positions on the YPG can only be overcome if a formula is found that enables Washington to maintain its zone of influence in Syria while also addressing Turkey’s concerns. Orhan believes that even if such a formula can be found, it will still be difficult for Turkey to sever the link between the United States and the YPG, because Washington does not want to lose the YPG to Iran.
Orhan also does not believe Turkey will mount a military operation against Manbij. “Nevertheless, Turkey will want to turn Manbij and [land] east of the Euphrates into a long-term arena for conflict by cooperating with Iran and Russia,” he wrote. “Turkey’s hand will be stronger in such a conflict because the US will be left confronting a large number of challenges in the region.”
Even if Turkey were to choose this path, it is still not evident that it would get its way with regard to the YPG. This leaves a political settlement with Washington as the only viable option. The two sides are currently in the throes of such a deep and unprecedented crisis of confidence in their relationship that it will take much diplomacy for them to arrive at a mutually beneficial arrangement in Syria. If they can overcome the crisis, it will spell a new dawn in ties and have implications for Syria, too. That, however, remains a big assumption for now.
Meanwhile, acrimonious statements by Erdogan and members of his government indicating the United States is more of an enemy than a friend, and similar sentiments coming from Washington — especially Congress, where talk is of slapping sanctions on Turkey — do not suggest that the sides are on the verge of a major breakthrough anytime before Turkey's elections.