On Monday, the United States and Turkey agreed on a plan to withdraw Kurdish fighters from the northern Syrian city of Manbij, which was a mark of beginning to resolve the recent disputes among the countries. According to a State Department statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu confirmed a roadmap to call for the Kurdish militia in Manbij, including Kurdish commanders and political leaders, to withdraw from the town and be replaced by local leaders. The withdraw plan also calls for the Turkish and American forces to cooperate to ensure security and stability of the area.
Turkey regards the Kurdish militia as a terrorist group against Turkey, so does the United States, and they are NATO allies. But the United States work with the militia as its most reliable partner in the war against the Islamic State. And the United States Congress is considering to delay Turkey’s purchase of F-35 fighter jets as retaliatory measures against Turkey’s purchase of a Russian S-400 surface-to-air defense system. Despite the complexity of the area, Kurds will withdraw in coming days. It will take longer to make decisions on vetting and personnel changes in governance structures.
U.S. and Turkey Agree on Kurds’ Withdrawal From Syrian Town
ISTANBUL — The United States and Turkey agreed Monday on a plan to withdraw Kurdish fighters from the northern Syrian city of Manbij as a step toward resolving one of the tensest disputes to erupt recently between the countries.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, “endorsed a road map” to “ensure security and stability in Manbij,” according to a State Department statement issued after the two officials met in Washington on Monday.
Neither side released details of the plan, but Turkish and American officials confirmed that it called for the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from the city. The agreement hands a significant gain to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey just weeks ahead of presidential elections.
Turkish officials said the road map calls for the Kurdish militia in Manbij — the People’s Protection Units — as well as Kurdish commanders and political leaders to withdraw from the town and be replaced by local leaders. They also said that the plan called for Turkish and American forces to jointly oversee stabilization operations in the area.
American officials would not confirm details of the plan, but two officials said that it called for the eventual withdrawal of the Kurdish militia in Manbij. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, did not confirm that there was a plan for the two countries to jointly oversee the city.
Manbij emerged as a potential flash point between the United States and Turkey, which are NATO allies, after Mr. Erdogan sent Turkish forces to seize control of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in January. Mr. Erdogan vowed to continue on to Manbij and oust the Kurdish militias there. But those Kurdish militias are allied with American Special Forces, which said they would resist any attack.
Turkey regards the Kurdish militia as an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, , which has been designated a terrorist group by both Turkey and the United States. Turkey has said that American support for the militia amounts to arming a group that has been fighting an insurgency in Turkey for 30 years.
But the Pentagon considers the militia its most reliable fighting partner in the region. The Kurdish fighters form the command component of American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which is fighting the Islamic State.
The Pentagon is loath to abandon the Kurdish fighters once the war against the Islamic State is over. It says Turkish operations against the Syrian Kurds are undermining the fight against the Islamist extremists.
Despite the fierce rhetoric from Ankara, the United States and Turkey have been in discussions over Manbij for months. But an agreement has been elusive, delayed by multiple other disputes between the countries.
The United States Congress is considering delaying Turkey’s purchase of F-35 fighter jets, partly in retaliation for Turkey’s purchase of a Russian S-400 surface-to-air defense system, Turkish analysts and media have said.
Turkey has demanded the extradition of a United States-based Islamic preacher, Fethullah Gulen, whom it accuses of instigating a failed coup in 2016. American officials have said Turkey has not provided enough credible evidence.
In a widespread crackdown against tens of thousands accused of being followers of Mr. Gulen, Turkey has also detained half a dozen Americans, including an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, and two American consulate employees.
Turkey has several times announced that it has reached an agreement on Manbij, including with the former Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson just days before he was removed from his post in March. The United States has repeatedly said no deal has been reached.
Even on Monday, the two sides appeared out of sync. The State Department statement was vague, giving no details of the plan, and several American officials, asked to confirm information from Turkey, said the announcement had taken them by surprise.
Mr. Cavusoglu said there was “a clear schedule” for the plan. “We are talking about a couple of months, not six months,” he told Turkish journalists. “It needs to be less than six months.”
Turkey’s government spokesman, Bekir Bozdag, also said Monday that a schedule had been set for the People’s Protection Units leave the region. “It is not open ended,” he told Turkey’s semiofficial news agency Anadolu.
The two American officials, however, said that the agreement was based on conditions on the ground and that no timetable had been set.
Turkish officials and political analysts outlined a three-month road map last week calling for Kurdish commanders to withdraw from Manbij within 30 days of the agreement being signed. That road map also said that American and Turkish forces would undertake joint patrols to oversee security in the city, and vet local Syrian commanders and officials to take over local security and governance in the following months.
American officials did not confirm these details and Turkish officials did not say Monday whether those elements had been agreed to.
According to that road map, the American-led forces fighting the Islamic State, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, who are predominantly Arab, will remain in Manbij. But the Kurdish commanders would be withdrawn and local Arab commanders will replace them. Local leaders would be selected to run the local council, which has been dominated for the last few years by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, a group closely affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
Mehmet Akarca, head of Turkey’s General Directorate for Press and Information and an adviser to President Erdogan, said that Turkey would establish a base on the outskirts of Manbij, which lies close to the Turkish border, and maintain observer status alongside American forces. Turkey would not conduct any further military operations like the operation into Afrin, he said.
“The main thing is we do not want a terrorist presence just across our border,” he said. “They are right across the border, on the tip of our noses.”
“The deal is done. They will withdraw in coming days,” he said. “This is the right way to go, for America to deal with Turkey in a peaceful way.”
The deal will allow Mr. Erdogan to claim a significant victory in removing a Kurdish political and military presence that he has labeled a terrorist threat and would open up the Arab city of Manbij for Syrian refugees to return from Turkey.
The city is protected from Syrian government strikes by American air power, but many Arabs have been reluctant to live under the Kurdish-run administration, which among other things enforced military conscription.
The change of leadership could be fraught and could cause the displacement of civilians, however.
United States officials expressed concerns for Kurdish civilians in Manbij who may come under pressure to leave with the Kurdish forces, or could suffer from retaliation of returning Arabs, as happened in Afrin.
Much still remains to be worked out but joint patrols could probably start soon, Amanda Sloat, a senior fellow at Brookings and former foreign policy official in the Obama administration, said in emailed comments. “Decisions on vetting and personnel changes in security/governance structures will undoubtedly take longer — that is where implementation challenges could arise.”
Source: The New York Times, Carlotta Gall, Helene Cooper and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, June 5, 2018. Photo credit to Mauricio Lima.