MANBIJ AND AL-BAB, SYRIA - A quiet strip of land in northern Syria hosts some of the world’s strongest powers and bitterest enemies.
Russian, American, Turkish, Syrian and Kurdish flags fly in the countryside while troops on both sides of the newly established and hotly contested “safe zone” along the Turkish border try to keep the peace.
Inside the nearby city of Manbij, locals mostly will not say who they want to be in charge. In the eight years since the Syrian Civil war began, the city has been controlled by four different groups, each overthrowing the last.
“We try to be adaptable and live with anyone,” says 33-year-old Jamal Haji, an unemployed engineer, in a crowded indoor marketplace. “We don’t want violence. You cannot find anyone in Syria who hasn’t lost someone to the war.”
Both the Syrian and Turkish governments have said they intend to take over Manbij, which is currently controlled by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces that are allied with the United States.
Last month, Kurdish forces began withdrawing troops and weapons from a strip of land also on the Turkish-Syrian border, but on the east side of the Euphrates River. The area is about 80 kilometers long, ranging from 5 to 14 kilometers deep inside Syria.
Turkish and U.S. forces began joint military patrols within this “safe zone,” but Turkish officials say the area needs to be at least twice as big and prepared to accept millions of refugees. For their part, SDF officials said they pulled back as a gesture of good faith, but have expressed no willingness to move further or to accept refugees from Turkey who are originally from other regions of Syria.
Next week, Turkish and U.S. leaders are expected to resume negotiations. Turkish leaders say they are prepared to take unilateral military action if they do not reach a deal.
Along the border in the Syrian countryside, 20-year-old Mohammad Nour, a SDF soldier, points to the Turkish side, saying most of his family lives in a contested town now inaccessible from the Syrian side.
He also points out bases controlled by Russia, allied with the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. Visible across the border are Turkey’s bases, allied with the Syrian rebel group the Free Syrian Army.
Military vehicles with fluttering American flags swoop down through the dusty hills. They are allied with both the Kurds and the Turks, the starkest enemies of this part of Syria, and have been representing the Kurds in negotiating the safe zone.
The safe zone, Nour says, may ease tensions in the region or it could make things worse.
“This could be good for the people here,” he explains. “On the other hand, we don’t believe Turkey wants a safe zone. We think they want to expand.”
Deep suspicion on both sides
Standing behind piled-up sandbags, Zaid Jassem, an SDF commander points out a Turkish military police checkpoint not far away. At the moment, he says, the area is mostly quiet, but it would not take much for the situation to blow up.
“Sometimes there are clashes but we think the Americans and Russians will not get into any real fight,” he explains. “But us and Turkey? It cannot continue like this.”
Turkey sees space between its borders and Kurdish forces as a threat to its security. Turkey equates the SDF with the PKK, a Kurdish insurgent group inside Turkey, designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., Turkey and NATO.
PKK fighters have launched attacks inside of Turkey for decades, leading to tens of thousands of deaths.
But Kurdish forces in Syria insist that they pose no threat to Turkey, and are only interested in securing areas inside of Syria. The U.S., an ally of Turkey, supports the SDF, which led the fight against Islamic State militants in northeastern Syria. Now it controls not only Kurdish areas of Syria, but some cities and towns once occupied by the Islamic State terror group.
Turkey considers the SDF’s expanded physical presence in Syria a threat, according to Jacob Shapiro, the director of analysis at Geopolitical Futures, U.S.-based think-tank.
“Turkey is nervous about a Syrian Kurdish state empowering or emboldening Kurdish separatists on the Turkish side of the border,” he says.
At a shop in the Manbij market, 31-year-old Mohammad sells diapers, soap and shampoo, and is visibly nervous while talking to foreigners. He says he does not want to be in any pictures because he doesn’t want to be seen as taking any political sides at all.
The Syrian government once controlled Manbij, then it was taken by rebel forces, who were ousted by Islamic State militants. Now Kurdish forces control the city, with the support of the U.S.
But U.S. support is not guaranteed going forward, as U.S. President Donald Trump says he wants to withdraw all troops from Syria. If the U.S. leaves, Mohammad explains, the city could change hands again.
“I don’t have any family outside of Manbij,” he says. “Where would I go?”