Only hours after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed Manbij as next target as part of the ongoing Turkish military operation in Syria after capture of al-Bab, the U.S. Central Command shared photos of female members of the Syrian Kurdish militia on its Twitter account.
“Ready for the fight” read one tweet featuring three Kurdish fighters, without elaborating over the who is the rival force. But the timing may have led to conclusion for many Turks that the U.S. Central Command might well meant Turkey-backed forces. It posted several photos on its account right after the Turkish president’s remarks.
President Erdogan’s Turkey pushes for extending scope of Euphrates Shield operation to include targeting the SDF, Syrian Defense Forces, an umbrella fighting group dominated by the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG). It is bound to bring two NATO allies on crash course as the U.S. military officials are on the ground working with YPG-led SDF for hammering out details of long anticipated Raqqa offensive against Islamic State.
Turkey-U.S. ties are locked in a simmering row over how to reconcile their incongruent policies toward the Syrian Kurdish militia, which Turkey views as extension of its domestic insurgent group. The discord hampers efforts for Raqqa operation and Turkey’s military incursion into Syria has only complicated matters for both sides.
On Tuesday, President Erdogan once again vowed to take action against SDF in Manbij. But the latest episode in the longstanding dispute threatens to unravel into full-blown, large-scale crisis. U.S. sticks to side with SDF despite Turkey’s long-running efforts to generate a split between its NATO ally and the Kurdish militia.
Turkey’s expansion toward Manbij would embroil its forces and rebel allies in another costly urban fight against a battle-hardened militia who has been fighting for thee years on different scenes of the Syrian theater. Three days ago, Turkish Army Chief Gen. Hulusi Akar told Turkish reporters that the Euphrates Shield mission in Syria has been accomplished.
The lack of a clear exit strategy and ambivalence over its overall planning about how to govern cities after capturing them creates a conundrum for Turkey. At the beginning, Turkey said al-Bab is the final phase of its military endeavor. But, President Erdogan has recently expressed desire for involvement in Raqqa offensive, and Ankara intensely lobbied on Washington to exclude the Kurdish force from anti-ISIS campaign.
If Turkey insists on attacking on the SDF, it may also lock in an unwanted military confrontation with the Syrian army, which has blocked the road from al-Bab to Manbij. On Tuesday, Turkey’s rebel allies clashed with the Syrian army. Local sources also reported that the U.S. deployed armored vehicles and some other heavy weapons around Manbij to build a dividing line between Turkey-backed forces and Kurdish militia to prevent a clash.