Turkey gets Russian greenlight to take Manbij

With no current US Secretary of State to negotiate with Erdogan has decided to go ahead with his advance

Turkish soldiers atop a tank patrol the northwestern city of Afrin, Syria, during a Turkish government-organised media tour into northern Syria.

Damascus: Before former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was sacked by US President Donald Trump, he was working with Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan on securing an agreement over the northern Syrian town of Manbij.

It was important because Erdogan had threatened to march on all of northern Syria to eliminate what he believes is an emerging Kurdish militant threat—having already kicked them out of Afrin.

Turkey views the US-backed Kurdish YPG group as an extension of the PKK, another Kurdish militant group active in Iraq and Turkey, which it considers as a terrorist group.

However, the US has worked closely with YPG, specifically in the fight against Daesh, which has made Turkey uneasy.

When the US announced in January its plans to form a 30,000 man-strong border force along Turkey’s southern border with Syria—Erdogan vowed to crush it.

Hoping to stave off an open conflict between Turkish and US-backed forces, Tillerson agreed to place Manbij under the co-adminstration of the Turkish and US armies in exchange for a halt in Turkey’s campaign.

While Tillerson favoured accomodating fellow NATO member Turkey’s concerns, Trump preferred to support the Kurds, regardless of whether or not Erdogan accepted this or not.

Now that Tillerson is out, his suggested replacement, CIA Director Mike Pompeo is likely to side with Trump, thus killing Tillerson’s deal with Erdogan.

This leaves the door wide open for a possible confrontation between the US and Turkey, prompting Erdogan to cuddle up closer to the Russians, who seemingly do not mind his advance on Manbij as long as Turkish forces do not trespass on their fiefdom, west of the Euphrates river.

According to informed sources, Russian President Vladmir Putin has even went further and gave Turkey the green light to also march on Tel Rifaat north of Aleppo, where Erdogan claims Kurdish militias have fled in recent days after they were expelled from Afrin.

“Negotiations are presently underway between the Russian and Turkish armies regarding the mechanism of handing Tal Rifaat to Ankara,” Ebrahim Hamidi, senior diplomatic editor for the London-based Al Sharq Alawsat newspaper.

On Sunday Erodgan vowed to march on Tal Rifaat “soon”.

The Syrian government has denied the existence of such a deal.

Cooperation between Russia and Turkey, once fierce foes, seriously began during the Moscow-backed Syrian government assault on Aleppo in 2016.

Turkey—which had been an ardent backer of rebels based there—had agreed to stop its support in exchange for deploying Turkish troops to the border cities of Jarablus and Azaz.

The same arrangement was repeated this month. While Russia helped the Syrian government overrun the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, Turkish troops were pounding Afrin to oust the Kurds.

Veteran opposition writer Fayez Sara thinks that when it comes to Manbij, the Russians and Americans see things eye-to-eye and has downplayed the prospect of any serious confrontation between the US and Turkey.

“Russia agreed to an expanded Turkish role after Ankara agreed to join the Russian-Iranian alliance. At the same time, the Americans were also accommodating to the Turks by abandoning the Kurds in Afrin. Both seemingly have no issue with giving the Turks a greater role in Manbij,” he said.

For now, Erdogan looks poised to march on Manbij and Tal Rifaat, adding them to the buffer zone he already carved back in 2016 which includes Jarablus, Azaz and Al Bab.

Ultimately his goal is to clean out the entire area and its surroundings from Kurdish militias, preventing the rise of a Kurdish state on his borders with Syria.

A Kurdish state in Syria could incite Turkey’s own sizable Kurdish population into open confrontation with government.

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