In Syria, the U.S. has walked a delicate line between its preference for Kurdish fighting groups in the north of the country, and its indispensable relationship with Turkey. Recently, however, the pace of events in Syria have pushed the U.S. to look past Turkey’s fears of growing PYD influence along its border. This may exacerbate already heightened tensions between the U.S. and Turkey should the PYD not withdraw from Manbij pocket following the current offensive to retake the region.
The operation to retake the Manbij pocket, a 40km (25 mile) stretch along the Syrian-Turkish border was not taken without consideration of Turkish involvement. Turkish concerns over U.S. partnership with Kurdish forces in the recently launched Manbij offensive are said to have played a role in the delayed launch of the operation. In discussions on whether or not it would participate in the offensive, Turkey clearly laid out that it expected the U.S. to dial up support for opposition groups it backs, rather than for the YPG. They also requested that all Syrian opposition forces working on the offensive undergo “background checks.”
In mid-May the U.S. and Turkey launched a series of airstrikes against Islamic State north of Aleppo. These strikes were interpreted as the beginning of broader cooperation between the two NATO allies, as discussions ramped up on a military plan to drive ISIL from the Turkish-Syrian border. Just days before the Manbij offensive got underway, Ankara attempted to reassert its participation in the move, again pushing a strategy bereft of the YPG. “We [Turkey]say okay, a second front should be opened but not with the YPG,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu put forward. Ultimately, U.S. insistence on emphasizing the YPG’s role in the operation precluded direct Turkish involvement in the mission. “We have bitten the bullet on the Kurds,” remarked one U.S. official.
In an effort to blunt Turkish objections to YPG participation, the U.S. has stressed that the fighting group is mostly comprised of Syrian Arabs, and pledged that PYD forces won’t remain in Manbij following the offensive. However, the YPG remains deeply involved in the maneuver. In the days leading up to the launch of the Manbij offensive, AFP photographers captured images of American soldiers adorned with YPG insignia patches. The photographs sent ripples through the Turkish-American relationship.
The U.S. responded to the photographs with conflicting statements indicative of the murkiness of U.S. priorities in its alliances. Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook maintained, “Special operations forces when they operate in certain areas do what they can to, if you will, blend in with the community to enhance their own protection, their own security.” Meanwhile, U.S. Colonel Warren, adamantly stated that, “[U.S. soldiers] Wearing those YPG patches was unauthorized and inappropriate.”
No amount of retroactive action or qualifying of decisions can erase the fact that the U.S. is increasingly willing to step on Turkey’s toes on Syria. The media has reported that Turkey has given tacit approval for the Manbij operation and allowed ground-based firing positions within Turkey to support the operation. But the greater question about the future of U.S-Turkey relations remains in question. The sidelining of Turkish interests and Turkish forces in the Manbij operation will not be as easily glossed over as the U.S. may hope.