When analyzing field indicators, it's easy to understand why Russia is the dominant force in northwest Syria both on the ground and in the air. Efforts led by Russia, with Iran and Turkey, to create a de-escalation zone around Idlib over the past year and a half have succeeded, despite minor differences of opinion.
But what happened June 18 definitely was a setback to Russia’s consolidation efforts in northwest Syria. For the first time ever, a Turkish military detachment of two armored personnel carriers and two mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles displaying very visible Turkish flags patrolled along the Sajur River. The river, almost 15 miles from Manbij, constitutes a de facto boundary line between the Turkish military-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
That this patrol was supported by US Army helicopters was a totally new element. Although both the Turkish General Staff and the US military described the activity as "coordinated yet independent," it was obvious that this symbolic patrolling was a joint US-Turkish military effort, both in its planning and its execution.
Now there are two competing military activities occurring simultaneously in northwest Syria. One is the de-escalation effort by the Russia-Turkey-Iran bloc intensifying around Idlib, and the other is the US-Turkey deconfliction efforts focusing on Manbij.
After seeing the Turkish military patrolling under the cover of US helicopters, the very first question to be asked was, since there's no credible evidence of an Islamic State (IS) presence in Manbij, what exactly is the "threat" that the Turkish and US military are patrolling against? What enemy seems to have brought the United States and Turkey together in Manbij?
The usual suspects that first come to mind are Russia and Iran. The United States especially has long been uncomfortable with efforts of pro-Iranian and pan-Shiite armed groups to deploy in southern Aleppo while developing their medium air defense capability of 5-100 kilometers (3-62 miles). It's no secret that the United States, supported by some armed Sunni groups, is working to upend the negotiation table Russia has been forming west of the Euphrates. Like others, I wonder what will happen as a result of the rapprochement between the United States and Turkey in Manbij: Will the US alliance with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) east of the Euphrates take a hit, as Russia wants? Or will it take Turkey out of the bloc with Russia and Iran, as the United States hopes? At the end of the day, who will profit from the Manbij deal between the United States and Turkey — Russia or the United States?
A small piece of turf of some 30-40 kilometers (18-24 miles) around Manbij has thus become the all-important point of the US-versus-Russia power struggle in northern Syria. As such, Manbij is truly a diplomatic minefield for both the United States and Turkey.
Can the United States pass through this minefield without getting blown up, while splitting Ankara away from the Iran-Russia bloc west of the Euphrates and even encouraging Turkey to cooperate with the United States east of the Euphrates?
After the first Turkish patrol, Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) spokesman Col. Sean Ryan said, “I can tell you that Turkish soldiers will not go into Manbij. Manbij Military Council [MMC] is in control of all the area, and so this [patrolling] will just be basically along the northern demarcation line.” OIR is the US military's name for its intervention against IS in Iraq and Syria.
As Ryan emphasized, the patrolling lasted only two hours and did not extend to Manbij proper. However, Turkey believes that the MMC is a cover for YPG forces and that the YPG remains in control in Manbij. The MMC has threatened to resist if the Turkish military-backed FSA forces do dare to enter the city.
But from the statements made so far, it appears the patrolling along Sajur River will not expand toward Manbij town. The sensitive issue to be handled now will be the restructuring of the MMC. This could well again cause tensions between the United States and Turkey.
Also, one has to take into account the dissent between Ankara and the US Central Command (CENTCOM), which is running OIR. Negotiations between the United States and Turkey weren't carried out with CENTCOM, but with the US European Command (EUCOM), which has smoother relations with Turkey. Final details of the patrol planning were formulated at the Stuttgart base of EUCOM headquarters in Germany, with the participation of Turkish and US officers.
From the frequent phone calls between Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar and EUCOM Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, one can also note that Turkey has designated EUCOM as its key interlocutor regarding Manbij.
If EUCOM involvement increases in northern Syria, the United States might be more inclined to accept Turkish views about northern Syria. I tend to see the Manbij deal as a carrot the United States offered Ankara for the United States becoming more visible west of the Euphrates and to cripple Russia-Iran-Turkey cooperation and their de-escalation efforts.
I must add here that this is the first time in more than a year that I have seen US helicopters flying over Manbij.
Now, about a possibility that would anger Moscow and Tehran: Shall we soon also see US helicopters flying over the Turkish-held triangle of Jarablus, al-Rai and al-Bab? That would indicate that US-Turkish cooperation in northwest Syria has deepened.
Observers should now focus more on the power struggle to control airspace rather than the ground. In northern Syria, guns on the ground may be no more important than which aircraft of what country flew over where and which proxies are acquiring air defense capabilities.
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