Erdoğan again signals ‘Manbij next’ after Afrin
After finalizing the establishment of observer points in Syria’s Idlib province as part of the Astana process for de-escalation zones, the Turkish army could head to the Manbij region, which is under the control of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on March 16.
“If the [the United States] wants to work with us, it should start by removing the terrorists to east of the Euphrates. We will certainly take those terrorists out. Then we are open to all kinds of cooperation proposals,” Erdoğan said at a provincial congress of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the eastern province of Erzurum.
“The U.S. made a proposal [on Manbij]. But we don’t know which path the new staff will follow,” he said, referring to a working group meeting between Turkish and U.S. officials aiming to address points of tension over the latter’s support for the YPG, which Ankara considers an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
“If the U.S. evacuates the Manbij region along with members of the terrorist organization, we can solve this issue faster and more easily,” Erdoğan said.
If other “terrorists” are also evacuated from the places where the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is no longer present, then Turkey’s sole interlocutor will be “locals of the region,” he added.
The first meeting at the technical level of a working group established by Ankara and Washington took place on March 8-9 in Washington, where the two sides discussed a model to be implemented in Manbij. Turkey has long been pressing the U.S. to push the YPG to withdraw from Manbij to east of the Euphrates.
A meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers, which had been scheduled to take place on March 19, was postponed after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was removed from office. He is expected to be replaced by CIA chief Mike Pompeo. The change in the State Department came as Turkey said it was expecting to formulate a road map for the issue of Manbij.
Touching on the outcome of the first round of working group meetings on March 8-9, Çavuşoğlu said on March 13 that Turkey and the U.S. envisage overseeing the withdrawal of YPG militants from Manbij, followed by Turkish and U.S. soldiers providing security for the region.
On March 16, Erdoğan said the Turkish military and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), backed by Turkey, have taken control of three quarters of the Afrin district in northern Syria.
“We have taken control of an area of 1,320 square kilometers in Afrin,” he said, praising the progress of “Operation Olive Branch.”
On Jan. 20, Turkey launched “Operation Olive Branch” with the FSA to clear YPG militants from Afrin. The Turkish General Staff says the operation aims to establish security and stability along Turkey’s borders and the wider region.