Asharq Al-Awsat Exclusive: Manbij Agreement Tests US-Turkish Ties

Asharq Al-Awsat Exclusive: Manbij Agreement Tests US-Turkish Ties

Wednesday, 6 June, 2018 - 05:45
A road sign that shows the direction to Manbij city is seen in the northern Syrian town of al-Bab, Syria March 1, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi
London- Ibrahim Humaidi
A US-Turkish agreement over Syria’s northern city Manbij will test whether confidence can be restored between the two NATO members, a Western diplomat told Asharq Al-Awsat on Tuesday.

Going ahead with the roadmap may also be a precursor to a new “betrayal” by the US against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). The YPG felt that it was betrayed by Russia earlier this year when it approved the incursion of Turkish forces and Syrian opposition factions into Syria’s Afrin to expel the Kurdish group from areas bordering Turkey.

According to information obtained by Asharq Al-Awsat, the roadmap between Washington and Ankara calls for the deployment of US-Turkish patrols on the outskirts of Manbij. It also demands the withdrawal of the YPG from the city to east of the Euphrates River. The role of the military council will be bolstered and a civilian one will also be formed. Arab and Kurdish refugees will be allowed to return to their homes.

The roadmap was originally proposed by former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former US National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster. Their departure from the American administration in March stalled the implementation of the agreement.

Disputes had also emerged between the US and Turkey over the order in which the articles of the deal would be implemented. Washington had stressed the importance of trust-building and forming patrols, while Ankara had demanded that the YPG withdrawal and heavy weapons disarmament would be the first article to be implemented.

After a series of intense negotiations, the finishing touches of the roadmap were approved by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Washington on Monday.

Yet, even now, differences persist.

Ankara demanded that the roadmap be implemented in ten days according to a strict timetable that includes the dates of the YPG withdrawal and disarmament of heavy weapons. Washington, on the other hand, said that the timetable of the deal hinges on how successfully the previous one was implemented, meaning that it depends on the extent of trust that can be built with Turkey.

Meanwhile, a leading YPG official told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We had about 300 fighters, but the number has been reduced gradually and there are only 30 advisers left.”

“They will withdraw as soon as they are no longer needed,” he explained when asked about the deadline on which all YPG troops would exit the northern city.

He went on to explain that all advisers are mainly involved with training Manbij military council officers.

The military council encompasses between 5,000 to 6,000 fighters

“Advisers will withdraw to the east of the Euphrates to participate in battles against ISIS soon after they conclude their mission in Manbij,” the official added.

YPG units did not seek territorial control after defeating ISIS at the end of 2016, he stressed.

He predicted that the first phase of the roadmap will see the deployment of American-Turkish patrols along the borders of regions controlled by the Manbij military council on the outskirts of the city and others controlled by the “Euphrates shield” factions, which are backed by the Turkish military and deployed between Aleppo and Jarablus near the Turkish border.

“Calm, balance and a sense of trust must be restored in order for the second phase of the deal to be implemented,” added the YPG official.

Attention will then turn to the military council and shifting administration to the civilian council, which will include residents of Manbij city and some Kurdish figures.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes YPG troops, has long supported the formation of Manbij’s civilian council.

A meeting joining a US-led Coalition delegation and the Manbij military council was held in the past few days—however, YPG forces were filled in on the results of US-Turkish talks in Ankara last week.

Turkey sees the YPG as a terrorist group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency on Turkish soil. Washington views the YPG as a key ally in the fight against ISIS.

On the other hand, diplomatic sources said that the extent of success in implementing the US-Turkish Manbij plan will test the chances of returning US-Turkish confidence.

Ankara believes that Washington respecting the agreement will pave the way for restoring trust between them after ties were strained over its stance from the failed 2016 coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The sources added that the deal could also keep Erdogan away from President Vladimir Putin, who is betting on widening the NATO rift to make gains with Ankara. The Russian leader is seeking to make a sales deal for Russia’s S-400 missile system to the Turkish army, which is in contact with Washington to obtain high military technology.

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