WASHINGTON — Turkey plans to move into the pivotal Syrian city of Manbij immediately after U.S. forces pull out, preempting any attempt by Syrian government forces to reach an accommodation with Kurds.
In fact, Turkey seems to be urging Washington to vacate the city now.
According to multiple news reports, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told President Donald Trump Sunday that Ankara will move into the area quickly to preserve security.
Manbij is where a suicide bomb attack killed four Americans last week, along with seven local civilians. They were dining in a popular restaurant. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.
The offer was made during a telephone call between the two leaders, according to news reports. It was the second call in a week between Trump and Erdogan to discuss Syria and the U.S. military withdrawal.
“President Trump underscored the importance of defeating terrorist elements that remain in Syria,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a read-out of the Sunday call, as reported by Al Jazerra.
“The two leaders agreed to continue to pursue a negotiated solution for northeast Syria that achieves our respective security concerns,” she said. “They also discussed their mutual interest in expanding the trade relationship between the United States and Turkey.”
Trump announced on December 19, 2018, he would withdraw the roughly 3,000 U.S. troops from Syria. He said ISIS had been defeated.
Manbij was retaken from ISIS in 2016 by the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, whose ground troops are mostly Syrian Kurd fighters. Ankara has said those elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are terrorists; the U.S. does not agree.
Erodgan has made it clear he wants to eliminate the Kurdish forces and push Turkish troops as far east across northern Syria as possible. He has rebuffed Trump’s request to respect the Kurds and has not committed to establishing a vague safe zone for them sought by Trump.
That is one reason the Kurds have reached out to Damascus, hoping to strike an accommodation with government forces to keep Turkey in check and out of Manbij.
Russian forces in Syria are also eyeing a move into Manbij and have increased their patrols on the outskirts of the town.
After months of haggling, U.S. and Turkey began to join patrols in the area on November 1, 2018. Tensions have continued to increase, however. Pentagon officials have repeatedly said that if U.S. troops are fired upon they will return fire, even if it is at Turkish forces — who are NATO allies.