Two weeks ago the Pentagon acknowledged that Turkey’s ongoing assault on the Kurdish-controlled region of Afrin in northern Syria has strained US troops battling the remnants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the country. Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) left their positions in the city of Manbij and elsewhere to help defend Afrin against Turkey. US troops who had been fighting ISIS in the Euphrates Valley had to replace the Kurds in strategic areas they left.
"That has had an effect on our ability to finish off ISIS in the lower Euphrates River Valley. It has slowed the pace of our advance," US Joint Staff Director Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie said in response to a question about the Kurd’s redeployments at a Department Of Defense press briefing on 15 March. "I would not say that ISIS is gaining any momentum, but I would instead say the inevitable conclusion of this has been slowed by the fact that not so much rank and file, but some leadership has moved back up to the north".
Much of northern Syria, including the Afrin region, is part of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), which is commonly referred to as Rojava. YPG militias began fighting ISIS and other groups in northern Syria for control of the territory in 2012. The YPG then merged with various Arab, Turkmen, Armenian, and Assyrian militias to form the The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in 2015.
The Kurdish militias and SDF are widely considered to be the most effective fighting force against ISIS on the ground. With the help of US airstrikes, they have liberated huge swaths of Syria from the terrorist organization. Kurdish militias in Iraq, who operate independently from those in Syria, were vital in defeating ISIS in their country as well.
The SDF proved itself so capable of defeating ISIS that in May of 2017 US President Donald Trump approved a plan to provide weapons to the SDF so it could lead the siege on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital at the time. Turkey, which is a member of NATO and a US ally, adamantly protested the decision. Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been leading a Kurdish insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984. The PKK is considered a terrorist group by the United States, Turkey, and the European Union. The YPG contends that while they are inspired by the same concepts of communalism and democratic confederalism espoused by the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, they are independent of the PKK and do not support terrorist activities.
Even though the SDF and YPG are not technically the same entity, distinguishing the two is complicated. YPG units account for roughly half of the SDF’s soldiers and are considered the backbone of its fighting force. The US agreed that the YPG is distinct from the PKK, and has since supplied them with machine guns, ammunition, mortars, anti-tank weapons, armored vehicles, and engineering equipment. The SDF also acquired ops-core helmets and sensitive advanced tech such as night vision goggles, rifle optics, and infrared illuminators used by US special operators, but the Pentagon denied supplying those materials and suggested they were funneled to the SDF by "other means through other sources".
When SDF forces liberated Raqqa from ISIS last November and tore down ISIS flags throughout the city, it was SDF and YPG flags they raised in their place.
Turkey watched from across the border as the area controlled by the DFNS grew and its Kurdish militias and governing councils consolidated their power. From Turkey’s perspective, this presented the possibility that the semi-autonomous Kurdish state could remain in perpetuity and become a safe haven and source of support for the PKK and other Kurdish separatists in Turkey.
After the Iraqi government announced in December that ISIS had been military defeated in that country as well, the situation changed for Turkey. With ISIS’s infrastructure and capabilities drastically diminished in both Iraq and Syria, the SDF was no longer as valuable to the US. They had served their purpose. Moving against them would be discouraged but ultimately allowed.
Ankara’s growing frustrations were exasperated when news broke on 13 January that the US would help the SDF train and fund a new 30,000-strong border security force, half of which would be SDF fighters. The border security force was supposedly intended to help prevent members of ISIS and other terrorist groups from entering Rojava from Turkey and Iraq or from across the Euphrates River, which currently separates areas controlled by the SDF from those controlled by Syrian government and anti-government rebels.
Turkish tanks on the road to Afrin.
The announcement enraged Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saw it as an indication that the US was actively supporting Kurdish autonomy and helping to further bolster its military capabilities. He referred to the proposed border force as a "terror army" and vowed that Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebels would destroy all of the "terror nests" along its border. Afrin and Manbij were named as the first targets.
The idea of the border force was opposed by nearly every military actor in the conflict, except the US and SDF, of course. The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, which has a tenuous relationship with the SDF, called the plan a "blatant attack" on its sovereignty. Russia and Iran, Assad’s two primary foreign allies in the conflict, also condemned the plan and suggested it was a move by the US to partition Syria. The US quickly downplayed the projected strength and function of the border force and subsequently promised Ankara it would quit supplying the SDF with weapons.
Turkey was not satisfied. It began cross-border shelling of areas in the Afrin region on 19 January, and officially launched Operation Olive Branch the following day with a series of airstrikes on numerous Kurdish positions there. Turkish soldiers and ordinance began streaming into Syria. Even though Erdogan stated he intends to wipe out out the YPG in the area, Ankara has tried to justify the campaign by asserting it is also fighting ISIS in Afrin. There is no evidence that ISIS is active in any significant way in the area.
Afrin is particularly difficult for the Kurds to defend because it is cut off from the rest of Rojava by areas controlled by the Syrian government or the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (TFSA). Manbij is often considered part of the Afrin region even though its government and demographics differ somewhat from other communities in Rojava, but it is separated from the rest of Afrin region and is also cut off from Rojava by the Euphrates River.
The Turkish troops and their rebel allies in Syria have taken roughly 70 percent of the Afrin district, including around 280 towns and villages. On 18 March, the TFSA and the Turkish forces have captured the city of Afrin. Shortly after its capture, TFSA fighters looted parts of the city and destroyed numerous Kurdish symbols, including a statue of Kawa the Blacksmith, as Turkish troops solidified control by raising Turkish flags and banners over the city.
Turkey’s insistence that it will move on to Manbij after Afrin presents an exceptionally complicated military and diplomatic situation. Manbij is roughly 100 km east of the city of Afrin and is defended by Manbij Military Council (MMC), which is comprised primarily of local Arabs but aligned with the SDF and YPG.
The MMC formed in 2016 after the SDF pushed ISIS out of the city. US troops helped organize and train the MMC and continue to provide training, materials, and logistical support. This has made them a target for the rebels aligned with Turkey and hostile to the SDF. According to a report from CNN, rebels in the area regularly fire on US patrols, who occasionally return fire in self-defense.
Four days after Turkey’s invasion began, the White House issued a statement saying that Trump had contacted Erdogan and "urged Turkey to exercise caution and to avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces". Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu offered a different perspective on the conversation between the two leaders and claimed instead Erdogan asked Trump to withdraw US troops from Manbij.
Direct conflict between two NATO members like the US and Turkey is incredibly unlikely, but if neither side backs down on the issue of Manbij it could escalate a tensions in an area where Syria, Russia, Turkey, Iran, the US, the SDF, and several other militias and operatives from additional NATO countries are all currently active.
That could lead to more US troops who would otherwise be fighting ISIS in the Euphrates Valley being redeployed to cities Turkey pushed the SDF out of to ensure that ISIS does not use move in and establish a toehold. American forces might also have to assume a peacekeeping role to prevent the conflict between Turkey and the SDF from spiraling further out of control.
Çavuşoğlu was quoted by the Turkish daily Hürriyet as saying that the US and Turkey were negotiating the exit of YPG forces from Manbij and that if the YPG refused to leave then "a military operation will be carried out not only in Manbij, but also to the east of the Euphrates".
The US has repeatedly confirmed it will not remove its troops from Manbij but has not officially stated if US military personnel would be involved in coordinating a peaceful withdrawal of SDF or YPG forces from the city. With the plan for the border force nixed, the US may also have to divert resources to securing the borders surrounding Rojava.
Regardless of the different roles they may fill, it is clear is that additional US forces are being sent to the Manbij. "I could tell you that we have probably done some repositioning to make sure of our own force protection, both down south, as well as up in Manbij," McKenzie stated at the press briefing.