Tensions are on the rise between Turkey and the YPG Syrian Kurdish militia, centering on the fate of the Syrian city of Manbij. Ankara is demanding the YPG withdraw from Manbij and allow Free Syrian Army forces to take control, a call that has so far been rejected.
Turkish military forces entered Syria last month, backing elements of the Free Syrian Army. The Turkish incursion is targeting both the Islamic State and the YPG. Ankara accuses the Kurdish militia of being terrorists linked to the outlawed PKK Kurdish rebel group and of seeking to carve out an independent state on Turkey’s border.
Last month's capture of Manbij by YPG forces operating within the coalition of the Syrian Democratic Forces set alarm bells ringing in Ankara.
Strategic, political value
“It [Manbij] has strategic value, but it also has political value in terms of what Kurds may gain or may lose, because it's located very strategically in terms of being able to connect the Kurdish enclaves or cantons as they call them, that have emerged there but have gaps between them,” said Semih Idiz, a political columnist for the Al-Monitor website.
In the course of fighting the Islamic State, the YPG has taken control of large swathes of territory along Turkey’s border, linking up a series of Kurdish enclaves. Only the Afrin enclave, some 100 kilometers west of Manbij, remains to be linked with the others.
Ankara’s concern over the capture of Manbij is also driven by domestic considerations.
“It comes as a response to kind of celebratory mood and messages from the Kurdish movement in Turkey when Manbij was captured,” said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen.
The YPG's successes are being closely followed by members of Turkey’s own large restive Kurdish minority, many of whom have strong family, clan and political ties with Syrian Kurds.
Turkey’s political leaders have repeatedly called on the YPG to withdraw all its forces from Manbij and retreat back to the eastern side of the Euphrates River, warning any forces that remain will be targeted. Free Syrian Army elements backed by the Turkish military are only a few kilometers away from Manbij and have declared their intentions to take the city.
“It's going to be a fierce battle in Manbij,” warned Ertugral Kurkcu, a senior parliamentary deputy with the HDP, Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish party. “They (the YPG) are very much concerned if they leave it will be very difficult to come back in the near future. And the second issue is more important: it is their homeland, so why should they leave? And they are the major force who fought IS.”
Dilemma for Washington
It is not only the Kurds in Manbij who oppose the Free Syrian Army (FSA) taking the city. Christian and Arab elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces that hold the city have also voiced opposition. The prospect of such a clash is a nightmare scenario for Washington, which would have allies on both sides of the fight, said former diplomat Selcen.
“For [the] U.S. there is a conflict if [the] CIA-backed FSA (Free Syrian Army) forces get into open military confrontation with the Pentagon-covered YPG forces," he said, noting that the U.S. is focused on the fight against Islamic State. "And the most efficient element today in the fight against ISIL are the Kurds,” said he, using an alternate acronym for Islamic State militants.
Washington has repeatedly told its allies to stay focused on the war against the jihadists. But the Turkish military continues to send more reinforcements into Syria, ahead of what many predict could be a major offensive. Analysts suggest the strategic Syrian town of al-Bab, which is under IS control, could also be the target of such an offensive.
But even if Ankara does not move against Manbij, the Turkish military build-up in Syria is likely to serve as a powerful deterrent to further Kurdish territorial gains.
“It’s... a kind of public communication to show that they [Ankara] are vigilant and they are watching over them,” said Kadir Gursel, a political columnist for Turkey’s Cumhuriyet newspaper. “It's to keep Kurds boxed [in].”