Turkish, Syrian forces edge close to each other in Manbij

ANKARA: With Syrian regime forces’ entry into the strategic northwestern city of Manbij on Friday amid Turkey’s massing of troops along the countries’ border, strategic cards are being redistributed.

Isolated by the US announcement of a full withdrawal from Syria, the Kurdish militia that controls the area recently asked the regime for help ahead of a potential Turkish offensive.

The Syrian national flag has reportedly been raised in the center of Manbij, which is located on the western bank of the Euphrates river and about 30 km south of the Turkish-Syrian border.

Ankara considers the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) an extension of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is outlawed in Turkey and has waged a bloody insurgency for more than three decades. Moscow does not regard the YPG as a terrorist group. 

Turkey’s Defense Ministry said the YPG cannot make statements on behalf of the region’s people or “invite other elements” to take control of it.

Ankara said regime forces’ entry into Manbij is a “psychological act,” but Moscow said it is a positive step for the region’s stability. 

A high-level Turkish delegation — comprising the defense minister, foreign minister, national intelligence chief and presidential adviser — will head to Moscow on Saturday. 

Russia will also host the leaders of Iran and Turkey early next year to discuss the Syrian conflict. 

Nihat Ali Ozcan, a security analyst at Ankara-based think tank TEPAV, said he does not anticipate a direct clash between Turkish and Syrian regime troops. “It’s more likely that the Ankara-supported Free Syrian Army (FSA) and regime forces may fight,” he told Arab News.

The FSA, which has moved to the outskirts of Manbij, is expected to be an essential part of a potential Turkish military offensive. Ozcan said Ankara will not react ahead of the meeting with Russian officials.

Ankara will ask Moscow to allow it to use Syrian airspace, the Turkish daily Hurriyet reported on Friday. But experts say if not managed properly, the crisis may deepen in the coming days. 

“If the Syrian regime goes eastward to limit the movement of Turkey and the FSA, it may lead to a clash between Turkey and Syria, and subsequently between Turkey on the one hand, and Russia and Iran on the other,” Ozcan said. 

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Wednesday said Moscow and Ankara are in close coordination over Syria, “including military counterterrorist operations.”

Timur Akhmetov, a researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Arab News that if Moscow encourages the Syrian regime to retake Manbij, it would be a sign of Russian mistrust of Turkey’s intentions in northern Syria. 

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, said a clash between Turkish and Syrian regime forces is very unlikely. 

“The regime wants to take back all of Syria, and Turkey wants Rojava (a semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northeast Syria) to disappear. The regime is overwhelming Rojava as it takes the rest of the country. Ankara will just sit and watch this from the sidelines,” he told Arab News. 

Ankara has prioritized restraining Kurdish nationalist ambitions in regions bordering southeast Turkey.

Cagaptay said what happens in Manbij will be the blueprint for what happens elsewhere in Rojava.

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