By Barbara Slavin
It’s called the Manbij pocket and it’s a major impediment to the U.S. goal of defeating the Islamic State (IS) in Syria.
The enclave in northern Syria, which borders Turkey for 60 miles, has remained open to IS infiltration. It is a lifeline for the IS “capital” of Raqqa that the Barack Obama administration would like to defeat before it leaves office.
Opposition by NATO ally Turkey to using Syrian Kurdish ground forces to close the gap has prevented concerted action by the anti-IS coalition for more than a year.
The White House announced Tuesday that President Obama had initiated a call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. According to a statement, “the two leaders discussed the situation in Syria and agreed on the urgency of continued efforts to degrade and defeat ISIL [another acronym for IS], and to disrupt ISIL’s capacity to conduct terrorist operations in Turkey, Europe, and beyond.”
It is likely that the Manbij pocket was among the topics discussed.
Among the many reasons why the multi-sided civil war in Syria is so difficult to resolve is the lack of agreement even among erstwhile allies about their top priorities in the conflict and their vision for post-war Syria.
Turkey, which initially focused on removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after protests against his rule provoked a violent crackdown in 2011, has lately been more consumed with preventing any gains for Kurdish fighters belonging to the so-called People’s Protection Units or YPG. The group is said to be closely tied to the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, which has been fighting for autonomy for Kurds in Turkey off and on for more than three decades.
Turkey has threatened to send ground forces into Syria to prevent the YPG from taking over the Manbij pocket and unifying a Kurdish enclave in eastern Syria with another Kurdish population center at Afrin. Turkey is so resistant to Kurdish gains from the Syria war that it has vetoed YPG participation at Syria peace talks in Geneva.
The Turks would prefer that the U.S.-led coalition support ethnic Arab factions in the Manbij pocket. But the U.S. has had a disappointing experience with non-Kurdish fighters it has trained and equipped in the past. The al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, known as the Nusra Front, captured the leaders of a group of 54 American trainees infiltrated into northern Syria last year and took their weapons. It was an embarrassing denouement to a half billion dollar U.S. effort.
Indigenous Arab forces in the area are not very promising either.
According to Aaron Stein, a Turkey expert at the Atlantic Council, the Arab groups in the Manbij pocket “have a fractured command structure and are not united – and therefore have struggled to coordinate offensives on the battlefield. Furthermore, the United States cannot conceivably work with the most dominant group in the area, Ahrar al-Sham” which has links” to the Nusra Front and has been the target of bombing by Russian forces in Syria.
The U.S. has had better luck with the YPG, which has pushed back Islamic State in Kurdish areas of northern Syria. It is also supported by Russia. But there are questions about how well the Kurds would be received in the Manjib pocket, which lacks a Kurdish majority.
The U.S. is also reluctant to send in its own ground forces, although it has acknowledged that at least 50 special operations personnel are in Syria working with the Kurds and other groups, teaching them how to call in U.S. airstrikes.
As Stein has pointed out, “this strategy works well in Kurdish-controlled areas, but the situation on the ground in the Manbij pocket rules out the insertion of U.S. ground forces because of hostility from groups active in the area.”
One possibility is that the Obama administration could become more actively involved in efforts to mediate a new cease-fire between the PKK and Turkey while assisting Turkey in pre-empting PKK attacks in Turkey.
The Erdoğan government had conducted peace talks with the PKK for several years until hostilities resumed in part because of friction over the expanding Kurdish footprint in Syria. A new cease-fire would allow all sides to concentrate on the threat from IS, which has conducted a series of horrific suicide bombings within Turkey over the past year and likely has sympathizers, if not active members, among the nearly three million Syrian refugees who have fled to Turkey since the civil war started.
The collapse of the Turkey-PKK cease-fire has deepened political divisions within Turkey that have damaged the stature of the Erdoğan government, already heavily criticized both within Turkey and abroad for human rights abuses against other domestic critics. Outgoing prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was an architect of the peace process with the Kurds. That he is being pushed out by Erdoğan is not a hopeful sign.
The Obama administration is sensitive to Turkish concerns about the PKK using the Syria crisis to score political and military gains. In their telephone call, Obama and Erdoğan “discussed opportunities for deepened cooperation in the fight against all terrorist groups, including the PKK,” according to the White House statement.
The U.S. could step up its support for legitimate Turkish actions against PKK leaders tied to terrorist attacks within Turkey, at the same time that it encourages both sides to return to peace talks.
So far there are no indications that Turkey will deprive U.S. forces of access to NATO bases such as Incirlik, which the U.S. is using to wage its air campaign against IS in Syria and Iraq.
Stein, in an interview with this analyst, said that while a largely YPG force entering Manbij would violate Turkish red lines, “the question is what they [the Turks] are prepared to do to punish the United States in the event that a decision to use the YPG to close the pocket is made.”
Ultimately, without a broader shared understanding about the nature of the Islamic State threat and a willingness to enlist the greatest number of allies against IS, it is hard to foresee much progress before Obama leaves office.
Barbara Slavin is Acting Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington.