In Syria, Turkey-backed Rebels Clash With U.S. Forces
U.S. troops in the northern Syrian city of Manbij came under attack by Turkey-backed rebels last week, a spokesperson for the U.S.-led Coalition against the Islamic State told The Globe Post on Wednesday.
“On multiple occasions in the last two weeks, Coalition forces conducting overt mobile patrols northwest of Manbij in northern Syria, received small arms fire from unknown groups,” Operation Inherent Resolve said in an emailed statement to The Globe Post.
“These incidents have occurred in territories primarily under the control of Turkish-backed fighters. On one occasion, Coalition troops returned fire and moved to protected positions to de-escalate the situation.”
There were no Coalition casualties or damage to equipment, the statement added. The spokesperson said the Coalition is engaged with Ankara “and other parties” over the incidents.
“We’ve raised our concerns about the incident with senior Turkish government officials with whom we continue to maintain an intensive dialogue at all levels,” a State Department spokesperson told The Globe Post.
The clashes took place during a visit by U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis to Ankara, where Turkish authorities publicly displayed their uneasiness for the Americans’ unyielding support to Syrian Kurdish forces within the Coalition.
“Thankfully, there were apparently no casualties in the exchange-of-fire incident in Manbij which will help reduce the immediate diplomatic fallout,” Perry Cammack, a Middle East Program fellow at the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, told The Globe Post.
“However, the incident highlights the challenges of the approach to Syria taking by both the Trump and Obama administrations.”
The episode is the latest example of the tangled elements of Syria’s multifaceted war. Although Ankara and Washington are NATO allies, their agendas and priorities do not converge in Syria.
The inclusion of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) within the Syrian Democratic Forces fighting ISIS has been a thorn in U.S.-Turkish bilateral relations. Turkey regards the YPG as an existential threat to its national security and even launched an operation in northern Syria last summer to blunt the Syrian Kurds’ attempts to further their own political autonomy.
Turkey’s uprooting of Islamic State from Jarabulus and al-Bab allowed the Turkish military to build a foothold in northern Syria to counter YPG’s any drive to unite its cantons.
“Given the desire to severely limit the number of American ground forces in Syria, the partnership with Kurdish forces against the Islamic State has a considerable tactical logic,” Mr. Cammack said. “But as a consequence, Washington will likely face increasing difficulties in balancing this tactical partnership with its broader strategic interests with Turkey.”
The “incident should be a wake-up call that deliberations about Syria’s longer-term political arrangements can’t be put on hold until after the defeat of the Islamic State, but need to begin now,” he added.
During a meeting with Mr. Mattis last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan renewed his sharp criticism of the U.S. alliance with Syrian Kurdish forces. Mr. Mattis reportedly pledged further U.S. support against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq.
The Manbij skirmish came a month after Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency published a detailed map of U.S. military bases in northern Syria, placing them in a dangerous situation.
“The release of sensitive military information exposes Coalition forces to unnecessary risk” Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon told The Globe Post at the time. Facing swift reaction from Pentagon, the Anadolu withdrew the story, but it left a debilitating impact on mutual trust.
Mr. Erdogan’s Chief Advisor Ilnur Cevik two months ago hinted that Turkey could strike U.S. forces in northern Syria, revealing the scale of the subtle tension between two allies.
The State Department spokesperson reiterated on Wednesday that Washington regards Turkey as a longstanding NATO ally and critical partner in the counter-ISIS Coalition.
“We work together closely to confront the serious challenges that face both of our nations,” the spokesperson said.