Turkey ready to take over Syria’s Manbij, Erdogan tells Trump

Turkey is ready to take over security in Manbij, a town in northeast Syria held by Kurdish forces where four US personnel died in a bombing last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has told his United States counterpart in a phone call.

A statement by the Turkish presidency said that Erdogan on Sunday told Donald Trump that the attack in Manbij was a provocation by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group to influence the expected US troop withdrawal from the war-torn country.

In a suprise move, Trump announced on December 19 that the United States would quickly pull its 2,000 soldiers out of northeastern Syria, declaring that ISIL had been defeated, a view not shared by many security experts and policy advisers.

US officials have since been walking back his timeline, suggesting the conditions for any such withdrawal were finishing off ISIL, and Turkey assuring the safety of Kurdish troops allied with the US.

Sunday’s call came almost a week after another phone conversationbetween the two leaders in which they discussed the situation in northeastern Syria amid rising tensions over the fate of Kurdish fighters in the war-torn country.

Talk of a US troop withdrawal has alarmed Kurdish fighters in Syria [File: Hussein Malla/The Associated Press]

‘Bone of contention’

Located near the border with Turkey, Manbij has emerged as a focal point of tensions after Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces whose presence has effectively deterred Ankara from attacking Kurdish fighters, Washington’s main ground ally in its fight against ISIL.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia allied to the Washington-backed Kurdish YPG, captured the town from ISIL in 2016. Ankara views the YPG as a “terrorist” group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has for decades waged a separatist armed campaign in Turkey.

Al Jazeera’s Osama bin Javaid, reporting from the Turkish-Syrian border, said the latest phone call was “essentially a continuation of the strategy to try and bridge the divide that was created” following a war of words between the two NATO allies over Washington’s backing of the Kurdish fighters and what would happen in the region after the US pullout.

“Manbij is a bone of contention between the two countries because the Turkish troops want to take charge of that area and the US-backed Kurdish fighters do not want to give control to the Turkish government,” he added.

“These Kurdish fighters have been inching towards the Syrian government in case of a vacuum created when the US forces pull out – a result that neither Turkey nor the US wants.”

Last month, the YPG invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces into the area, hoping to prevent a Turkish assault.

Turkish forces conduct military exercises on Syria border (2:21)

War of words

In its description of the call, the White House made no mention of Erdogan’s offer to take over security in Manbij but said the two men agreed to keep pursuing a negotiated settlement for northeastern Syria that meets both nations’ security needs.

“President Trump underscored the importance of defeating terrorist elements that remain in Syria,” Sarah Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, said in a description of the phone conversation.

“The two leaders agreed to continue to pursue a negotiated solution for northeast Syria that achieves our respective security concerns. They also discussed their mutual interest in expanding the trade relationship between the United States and Turkey,” Sanders added.

Trump has previously warned Turkey not to attack the Kurdish fighters in Syria and appeared to threaten Turkey’s economy if it did.

In response, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said “we are not scared of and will not be intimidated by any threats,” adding that “economic threats against Turkey will get nowhere.”

Erdogan calls Trump

In its statement about the latest call, the Turkish presidency also said that the two leaders had agreed to accelerate discussions between their chiefs of staff about a safe zone in northeastern Syria.

Last week, Trump suggested creating a safe zone, without elaborating. The SDF said on Wednesday it was ready to help create a safe zone amid Kurdish fears that the US withdrawal would give Ankara the opportunity to mount a new offensive. 

Turkey has said the US administration has been incoherent about the withdrawal process since Trump’s December 19 announcement that he would pull some 2,000 US troops out of Syria, as well as in its approach to different “terrorist groups”.

Joshua Landis, director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said Erdogan was deliberately going directly to the US president.

“He wants America to leave northern Syria, and he knows President Trump is eager to do just that,” said Landis.

“So Erdogan does not want to talk to the security team and the foreign policy team around President Trump, all of whom want to stay in Syria for the long haul, as they call it, in order to roll back Iran, continue the fight against ISIS and secure the protection of the Kurdish troops that they’ve been allied with in northern Syria,” he added.

“Trump wants to bring the troops home and not get involved for the long-term in Syria … The president says, ‘the hell with this’, let Russia and Syria and Iran deal with ISIS and finish it off; they want to do it, let them pay for it.”

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