U.S.-Turkish Tensions in Syria: The Manbij Conundrum

The long-simmering dispute between Turkey and the United States over the future of the town of Manbij and territory east of the Euphrates immediately below the Turkish-Syrian border intensified after the completion of Ankara’s successful military operation against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin. On March 28, the Turkish National Security Council chaired by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared: “The terrorists in Manbij should be immediately removed from the region, otherwise Turkey will not hesitate to take initiative there by itself, as it did in other areas…We have the same determination concerning the terrorists nested on Syrian soil east of the Euphrates.” The statement was the most formal warning yet to the United States that Manbij, where a significant portion of the 2,000 U.S. special forces in Syria is located, would be Ankara’s next target.

The town of Afrin was captured by Syrian opposition forces loyal to Ankara, gathered under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner, accompanied by Turkish special forces, on March 18. From the beginning of its military operation on January 20 against the YPG, which had been controlling the northwest Syrian enclave since 2012, Turkey chose to rely primarily on the FSA. However, after initially restricting its support to air and artillery strikes, Turkey assumed a greater role in the conflict on February 6 through the insertion of its police and gendarmerie special forces with experience in urban conflict in southeastern Turkey in the pursuit of its declared goal of “clearing Afrin of terrorists of the YPG,” viewed by Ankara as an extension of the Turkish Kurdish Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which it has been fighting since 1984.

Erdogan, who oversaw the operation as commander-in-chief—while announcing advances into Afrin along with numbers of YPG fighters killed on a daily basis (3,872 as of April 2)—has long been focusing on Manbij, which the YPG took from the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2016. His strategy seems designed to leverage the demonstration of the use of force in Afrin to nudge the United States to do what it was previously unwilling to do despite innumerable Turkish appeals over the past two years. In other words, by threatening to extend the ongoing military operation to Manbij—preferably through an agreement with Washington but also even if the U.S. soldiers there are not withdrawn—Erdogan is hoping to finally force the United States to review and ultimately terminate the de facto alliance it established with the YPG against ISIS, albeit under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has continued, to Turkey’s growing annoyance, after the ISIS defeat at Raqqa.

On March 22, Erdogan took his case directly to President Donald Trump once again in their first phone conversation since January 24, a few days into the Afrin operation. Although Manbij was presumably the main item on the agenda, the White House readout of the call stated only that the two men had “reaffirmed the importance of strong relations between the United States and Turkey as NATO allies and strategic partners” and “committed to continue efforts to intensify cooperation on shared strategic challenges and address the concerns of both countries that affect bilateral relations.” The timing of the call was unfortunate, however, as it took place while Trump was preoccupied with his impending move later that day to remove National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

While there was no indication of imminent movement by Washington on Manbij after the conversation, Trump nevertheless provided Erdogan with reason to hope. After his phone call on March 27 to President Emmanuel Macron of France, who had been publicly critical of the Turkish operation in Afrin, the White House noted that Trump had “stressed the need to intensify cooperation with Turkey with respect to shared strategic challenges in Syria.” Two days later, Trump declared at a rally of his supporters that the United States would be “coming out of Syria very soon.” On March 30, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump had frozen more than $200 million in funds for recovery efforts in Syria. As speculation in Washington intensified about a possible change in Trump’s Syria policy, Erdogan followed up with a second call to him in eight days on March 30. While the White House readout stressed only the joint reaffirmation of the commitment “to work through issues that affect the bilateral relationship,” according to a Hurriyet report on April 4, Trump informed Erdogan that “the U.S. mission in Syria had come to an end” without providing a clear timetable.

Ankara, Moscow, and Washington on the Northern Syrian Chessboard

Turkey initiated its military operation in Afrin after getting a green light from Russia, which has a decisive say over all such activities in northwestern Syria because of its highly effective air defense system based at its base at Hmeimim. Notwithstanding its ongoing contacts with the Syrian Kurds, which it has maintained despite vigorous Turkish objections, and its plans to include them in a future constitutional arrangement with Damascus, Moscow chose to give its implicit assent and cleared the way for the Turkish advance by withdrawing its military liaisons from Afrin.

To be sure, Erdogan had every reason to expect such a response. He has been enjoying a very close relationship with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, characterized by a seemingly constant phone dialogue interspersed with frequent visits to each other, since their rapprochement in 2016 following the crisis the previous year because of the shooting down of a Russian fighter plane. Beyond the importance of links with Turkey at a time of growing strains with the other NATO countries, Turkey’s continued participation with Russia and Iran—the two countries primarily responsible for sustaining Bashar al-Assad’s rule and frustrating the prolonged Turkish-backed effort by his opponents—in the Moscow-sponsored “Astana process,” has been a crucial component of Putin’s efforts to cap his military success in Syria with a diplomatic triumph involving an eventual peace settlement.

However, there was also a more tactical and cynical quid pro quo in Putin’s calculations. Russia intensified its aerial bombing in support of Assad’s merciless advance into opposition-held east Ghouta near Damascus parallel to Turkey’s move into Afrin, just as during the termination of the similarly stubborn opposition resistance in east Aleppo when Turkey was conducting its Euphrates Shield operation in northern Syria in 2016. Soon after the last of the opposition forces in east Ghouta left for Idlib on buses on April 3, Erdogan and Putin were meeting in Ankara to formally launch the construction by Russia of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant and reconfirm Turkey’s purchase of its S-400 air defense system. The following day, the two men were joined by President Hassan Rouhani of Iran in their first trilateral summit meeting on Syria since November 2017.

In contrast to the honeymoon-like atmosphere in its relations with Moscow, Ankara’s relationship with Washington continued to be severely tested by differences, most notably over Manbij and the YPG. After having been “repeatedly deceived,” as he invariably characterizes his futile dialogue on this subject with Barack Obama, Erdogan harbored great hopes of a favorable change with Trump. Even after the new administration’s disappointing decision in May 2017 to provide arms directly to the Syrian Kurds in the context of its support to the SDF, a few days before Erdogan’s first White House meeting with Trump, he persisted with its efforts to persuade Trump to break with the YPG. Trump’s promise of “pending adjustments to the military support provided to our partners on the ground in Syria now that the battle of Raqqa is complete” in their November 24, 2017, phone conversation was interpreted by Erdogan as a firm signal that he would now move toward the Turkish position. However, despite Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s claim that this was a commitment reaffirmed by Trump during his call to Erdogan on January 24, Washington refrained from disengagement from the YPG in its evolving post-Raqqa Syria strategy. In fact, the U.S. Department of Defense chose to increase the military assistance that would be given in 2018 to the SDF from $430 million to $500 million.

Consequently, Erdogan proceeded to turn up the volume of his virtually daily attacks on the United States for “its support of YPG terrorists” characterized by “weapons delivered in 5,000 trucks and 2,000 planes.” On the day the Afrin operation was launched, for example, Erdogan made a point of noting that “since none of the promises made to us concerning Manbij has been kept, nobody can say anything when we do what is necessary.” On February 13, he warned the U.S. soldiers in northern Syria of “an Ottoman slap” if they resisted in Manbij with the YPG when Turkey moved to “wipe out all terrorists, starting from the ones standing right next to them.”

Reconciling the Irreconcilable?

It is clear that until the emergence of a revised post-Raqqa Syria strategy, the current U.S. engagement with the YPG will be sustained by General Joseph Votel, U.S. CENTCOM commander, under the direct supervision of Defense Secretary James Mattis. At the start of the Turkish military operation in January, Votel had stated that Afrin was not part of U.S. operations in Syria. This was not only with reference to his mission-driven focus on defeating ISIS and its remnants after Raqqa but also implicitly to the deconfliction agreement dividing Syria between east and west Euphrates involving U.S. and Russian forces in the country. Accordingly, the United States refrained from interference throughout Turkey’s Afrin operation beyond routine calls for the military action to be “limited in scope and duration.” However, Washington made a point of signaling that Manbij was a very different matter, as Trump himself underlined in his January 24 call to Erdogan in which he “urged Turkey to exercise caution and to avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces.” Three days later, Votel said that U.S. withdrawal from Manbij was “not something we are looking into.”

The deliberately public visit to Manbij on February 7 of two senior U.S. generals directly involved in the cooperative effort with the YPG, Paul Funk and Jamie Jarrard, reinforced the U.S. military’s message to Ankara. While in Manbij, Funk warned “You hit us, we will respond aggressively. We will defend ourselves.” Votel followed up on February 27 by referring in congressional testimony to “the strong relationship with the SDF in the east and northern parts of Syria” and criticizing the Turkish military action that had “clearly increased the risk to our campaign to defeat ISIS.” For good measure, he asserted that he, and not then–Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, was responsible for U.S. military objectives in Syria.

Nevertheless, there was significant diplomatic contact between Ankara and Washington to defuse the crisis. On February 11, McMaster undertook a trip with minimum fanfare to Istanbul for a meeting with presidential adviser Ibrahim Kalin. Although the brief readout provided little insight into their conversation, it is safe to assume that Kalin restated Turkish demands relating to Manbij and the YPG, while McMaster sought to convince his Turkish interlocutor about Washington’s desire to find a compromise. This was followed by a meeting between Mattis and his Turkish counterpart, Nurettin Canikli, on the sidelines of a NATO event in Brussels on February 14, after which Canikli revealed with astonishment that Mattis had proposed “separating the PKK and the YPG” and “to get the YPG to fight the PKK,” while assuring him that the United States was “working on a plan to collect the weapons given to the YPG” as previously promised.

These meetings set the stage for Tillerson’s visit to Ankara on February 15 at the end of what was to prove his final Middle East tour. Prior to his arrival, Tillerson had annoyed the Turks by reiterating the criticism that the Afrin operation had “distracted from the fight to defeat ISIS” and by saying “we have never given heavy arms to the YPG so there is none to take back.” However, he chose to pursue a much more conciliatory track in Ankara. Soon after his arrival, he allowed himself to be ushered into a three-and-a-half-hour meeting with Erdogan without any other U.S. official present, and Cavusoglu, the only other participant, as translator. While Turkish presidential sources refrained from providing any detail immediately after the meeting, they nevertheless described it as “positive and productive.”

After additional discussions with Cavusoglu, Tillerson provided ample justification for Turkish optimism. In their joint press conference on February 16, Tillerson said “In our discussions last night with President Erdogan, we brought forward proposals on how we can address all of the critical issues that are standing between this relationship today. What we have agreed is that our objectives for Syria are precisely the same…We are not going to be the U.S. doing one thing and Turkey doing another. We are going to act together from this point forward.” Confirming Cavusoglu’s revelation that joint groups would be set up to “work through the issues that are causing difficulties for us and we’re going to resolve them,” Tillerson added “We are going to address Manbij first. The United States made commitments to Turkey previously. We have not completed fulfilling those commitments. Through the working group, we are going to address that and Manbij is going to receive priority.” The intention to proceed to a structured dialogue was further confirmed by a joint communique that referred “to a results-oriented mechanism…which will be activated no later than mid-March.”

A senior U.S. official speaking to reporters in Ankara on March 1 underlined Tillerson’s accommodationist message by saying “Our ally is Turkey…Our military cooperation with the YPG was a temporary, tactical arrangement aimed entirely at combating ISIS.” After thus reiterating the May 17 and December 4, 2017, “temporary, transactional and tactical” descriptions of the relationship with the YPG by Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Jonathan Cohen, who has operational-level responsibility for diplomatic interaction with Turkey, the unnamed official reaffirmed that the United States remained “committed to fulfilling our promises regarding the YPG presence in Manbij.” The official added, “Somebody has to provide security there but our intention is that it will not be the YPG.” However, such verbal assurances were not enough for Erdogan. On March 3, he noted with regret that “many promises were made but not fulfilled…Trump and his team are now saying the same, but these words have not been made concrete.” On March 6, he added “From now on we do not care who says what but who does what.”

Erdogan’s skeptical approach was justified. Although the first working group meeting focusing on Manbij duly convened at the U.S. State Department on March 8–9, it was inconclusive. As State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert subsequently commented on March 16, “We had a day and a half worth of meetings last week with Turkish Government officials. We’re still working to reach an agreement with Turkey at this point.” After denying the claim by Kalin that there was an agreement between the two countries, she added on March 22, “U.S. forces are located in Manbij. We have made it very clear to the Turkish Government that we continue to operate there. We have made our concerns very clear that we have a right to defend ourselves, along with our coalition partners on the ground there. We have encouraged Turkey to de-escalate overall and that’s why we continue to have conversations with that government. We have no intention to leave.” In his own message to Turkey, Jarrard visited Manbij again on March 22 with U.S. ambassador to Bahrain William Roebuck to meet with SDF commanders in the Manbij Military Council, as well as civilian leaders, “to tell the people that we are with you and do not be worried for Manbij,” according to Ibrahim Qaftan, the cochair of Manbij Executive Council. This was further underlined by the U.S. troops’ reported fortification of their front-line positions in Manbij.

Although diplomatic contacts failed to solve the crisis, they had the virtue from the U.S. point of view of helping to avoid an armed confrontation. On March 27, for example, Mattis welcomed the fact that there had been “no move on Manbij.” He added that there was “open dialogue with the Turkish government right now. We’re working it and we’re working it forward.” The Turkish perspective was very different. On March 21, Erdogan criticized the United States by saying “They say they will not leave Manbij. You do not have the right to be there in the first place…All the American officials with whom we have been in touch since the Obama administration guaranteed us that the terrorist organization will be removed from Manbij once the ISIS threat is eliminated. There were even those who said this would be done within weeks. Years have gone by and nothing has been done.” He continued, “We expect President Trump to settle the confusion on the policies toward our country to block statements by spokesmen who are speaking in his name but don’t know what they are saying, competing with each other in giving anti-Turkey statements that have already crossed the line.” However, Erdogan also left the door open to a possible compromise by saying “It is a fact that we have extensive and deep political, diplomatic and economic benefits with the U.S.”

When Tillerson, who had made a personal commitment to Erdogan to implement previous promises on Manbij, was summarily dismissed by Trump soon after the working group meeting in Washington, his follow-up meeting with Cavusoglu–which the latter had announced would also be held in Washington on March 19–was inevitably canceled. Nevertheless, Cavusoglu claimed on March 22 that he would be meeting with Mike Pompeo, Tillerson’s replacement, soon after his confirmation to proceed to the implementation of “the understanding reached with his predecessor.” In the meanwhile, Ankara sought to maintain the diplomatic momentum by sending Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Umit Yalcin to Washington to meet with Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan on March 30. Turkish diplomatic sources quoted by Hurriyet on April 1 commented that the two sides had “confirmed their determination to make progress in proceeding together on Manbij.” The dialogue between the two countries continued with Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Tina Kaidanow’s visit to Ankara at the end of March for the U.S.-Turkey Defense Trade Dialogue.

Looking Ahead

Notwithstanding Trump’s grossly misplaced observation after his meeting with Erdogan in New York last September that the two countries were “as close as we have ever been,” their prolonged inability to solve the intensifying dispute over Manbij and the ongoing U.S. relationship with the YPG confirms that the long-standing alliance is going through a particularly difficult phase. As Cavusoglu put it dramatically but more accurately on February 12, the “ties with the U.S. are at a very critical point. We will either fix these relations or they will break completely.”

If Trump were to decide to accede to his Turkish counterpart’s demands on Manbij and proceed to implement his decision by lining up the currently dysfunctional national security team behind it, this would not by itself get the relationship back on track. This issue is only the most visible current symptom of the general malaise that has long bedeviled relations, and there are many other problems that will need to be resolved. Moreover, Erdogan would then surely insist, as he constantly reiterates, on the complete elimination of YPG control throughout the entire belt immediately south of the Turkish-Syrian border from the Euphrates to the Iraqi border. However, it would undoubtedly provide a major diplomatic achievement for Erdogan, without a risky operation involving the probability of a clash with U.S. troops and additional Turkish casualties.

Erdogan said on March 26 that the “we will not withdraw, we are here attitude” of the U.S. military on Manbij was “contrary to Trump’s view.” On April 1, he followed up by noting “with appreciation some partial changes in the Syria policy of the U.S.” Erdogan’s comments suggested that Trump had provided him with sufficient encouragement in their phone conversation to believe bigger changes were coming. Just like Trump, Erdogan loves to personally negotiate deals with his counterparts, and he may have perceived that Trump’s reported willingness to reopen discussion on the sale of Patriot missiles and the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson provided him with leverage. He must also have been greatly encouraged by Trump’s reiteration of his “I want to get out, I want to bring our troops back home” comments on April 3.

However, Trump grudgingly accepted the arguments put forward, notably by Mattis, at a National Security Council meeting on Syria on the same day, that a premature withdrawal of forces would jeopardize the gains in the anti-ISIS fight although the White House statement about the meeting declared that the “military mission to eradicate ISIS in Syria is coming to a rapid end.” However, in the meanwhile the administration will effectively stick to its current policy of maintaining the tactical alliance with the YPG under the SDF umbrella against the remnants of ISIS–as Votel reaffirmed once again in a speech in Washington on the same day–while trying simultaneously to preserve the strategic partnership with Turkey. Needless to say, this suggests continued turbulence in the U.S.-Turkish relationship.

Bulent Aliriza
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Zeynep Yekeler

Research Assistant, Turkey Project