Dangerous scramble on horizon for key Syrian city of Manbij

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has signalled the city as its next target in the country’s military operation

Borzou Daragahi
Akcakale, Turkey
Monday 14 October 2019 17:21
Comments
Akcakale: the staging ground for Turkey's Operation Peace Spring

The withdrawal of US troops from northeast Syria and a series of undisclosed deals brokered by Russia have triggered a scramble for the key city of Manbij, potentially pitting Turkish forces and its allied armed groups against forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Manbij – a commercial hub within a largely agricultural area – lies west of the Euphrates River and falls adjacent to the Turkish border as well as the main M4 highway coursing through northern Syria. It was once designated the capital for a proposed new Syrian province encompassing rural Aleppo, and has long been coveted by the region’s largely ethnic Arab population.

Holding the city represents a strategic victory, says Omer Ozkizilcik, a Syria expert at Seta, an Ankara-based think tank.

“The importance of Manbij has to do with its large population [about 300,000] and its strategic location on the M4 highway.

“Whoever controls the area of Manbij controls the logistics supply route from Iraq to Aleppo. This means having huge financial and military superiority,” says Mr Ozkizilcik.

After receiving what it described as a green light from President Donald Trump, Turkey last week launched “Operation Peace Spring”, a military offensive to establish a 32-kilometre wide (20 miles) buffer zone on the Syrian side of its southern border.

The military intervention and subsequent counter-attacks have left scores dead on both sides of the border, displaced over 100,000 people, and ultimately prompted the Kurdish-led organisation that controls the area to strike a deal with the Assad regime to grant control of its borders to pro-Damascus forces.

Inside Akcakale, a staging ground for the war along the Turkish border, residents were still recovering from the damage of several rockets that struck the city from Syria in a counteroffensive. Plumes of smoke rose from within Syria, where Turkish artillery and aircraft were targetting positions of the Kurdish-led militia.

“It’s a shame what happened here,” says Salih Mehmet, a 46-year-old resident of a neighbourhood where a missile struck the second storey of a house.

Russia, which has emerged as the primary power broker in Syria amid a pullback by the US, appeared at the centre of a tangle of secret backroom deals.

It has been negotiating with Turkey as part of a series of talks about Syria’s future involving Moscow, Ankara and Tehran, guiding the regime in Damascus, and also continuing to maintain ties to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Force (SDF), which has controlled Syria’s northeast since the collapse of regime authority there in 2013.

But it remains unclear how much leeway Moscow has granted any of its three patrons, setting up a confusing and potentially dangerous crisscrossing of interests and armed groups over Manbij and other cities.

Video distributed online appeared to show scenes of Syrian regime forces on the move, heading northward to take up border positions in both Manbij and the northern town of Kobane.

But Turkish armed forces, after taking control of the towns of Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad, were also on the move towards Manbij, Turkish media outlets reported, with broadcasting footage said to show Turkish armed forces and allied Syrian armed groups inside Manbij

Attempting to project an air of calm, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he was undisturbed by the reports of Syrian regime forces moving towards the city.

“Our Arab brothers, the tribes who are the actual owners of the city, will return once Manbij is cleared,” he told reporters at a press conference on Monday morning. “There are many rumours, but it looks like there won’t be a problem. On the Manbij issue we’re at the stage of implementing our own decision.”

Syrian Arab civilians flee as Turkish troops with American-made M60 tanks and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters gather near the village of Qirata on the outskirts of the northern city of Manbij near the Turkish border on Monday

Manbij is the largest city of Aleppo province after Aleppo itself and serves as the bridge connecting the eastern Euphrates area to Aleppo. It includes Syria’s second-largest dam, and is the resting place of Suleyman Shah, the father of the founder of the Ottoman Empire.

“We are most worried about Manbij,” says Wissam Zarqa, a Syrian opposition activist originally from Aleppo, but who has relatives in Manbij, who is now a professor at Ankara’s Beyazit Yildirim University.

“It seems now that the Syrian regime and the Free Syrian Army will both try to enter the city, and that will create problems for the city.”

Syria’s armed forces are no match for Turkey. The Syrian Arab Army is badly depleted after nearly nine years of civil war, prompted by an armed popular uprising against the Assad dictatorship. Virtually all of its significant battlefield victories are credited to Russian air power and highly motivated Iranian-backed militias, including Lebanese Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, Turkey has the second-largest land force in Nato as well as a modern fleet of armoured vehicles, supported by advanced fighter jets, artillery and tanks. It has already seized control of swaths of Syria’s northwest. In Akcakale, fighters of the Syrian National Army, the Turkey-backed Arab irregular armed force made of remnants of the rebel units that fought against the Assad regime, could be seen positioning themselves along the border.

We are most worried about Manbij. It seems now that the Syrian regime and the Free Syrian Army will both try to enter the city, and that will create problems for the city

Wissam Zarqa, Syrian opposition activist

But geopolitical considerations may hamper Turkey’s quest to seize control of Manbij. Russia controls much of Syria’s skies. Although Mr Erdogan hinted that Moscow had approved Turkey’s push to take both Manbij and Kobane; the Kremlin has long sought to broker a deal between the regime and the Kurds.

On Monday, Mr Erdogan also referred to a previous deal between Turkey and the US for the SDF to leave Manbij and hand it to local allies. That deal was never honoured, Turkey insists, becoming a source of friction between Washington and Ankara.

The murky, evolving dangers on the ground were cited by Trump administration officials as being behind the decision to pull all remaining US troops out of northeast Syria, including from an outpost in Manbij.

“You not only have Turkish forces there, you have local forces, you have the SDF that will be manoeuvring against the Turkish forces, you have [Isis] that killed four Americans not far from those outposts in Manbij back about eight months ago,” a senior US State Department official told reporters on Sunday. “That was a very prudent and wise decision.”

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in