Spotlight: Turkish operation against Manbij unlikely as things stand: analysts

Source: Xinhua| 2019-02-10 17:40:01|Editor: Xiang Bo
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ISTANBUL, Feb. 10 (Xinhua) -- Despite Turkey's threat of military action, it is highly unlikely that the United States would hand over Syria's Manbij to Turkey or that Ankara would attempt to capture it, analysts told Xinhua.

"Turkey can't move to seize Manbij as long as U.S. troops are there," said Hasan Koni, an analyst on international relations with Istanbul Kultur University.

Otherwise, it would not only mean a military confrontation with the U.S. but Turkey would also be pushed into an economic crisis by Washington, cautioned Koni.

Ankara has long been in talks with Washington over the removal of the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia from Manbij and the town's possible handover to Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signaled Tuesday that Turkey would launch a military offensive to capture Manbij unless Washington acts to honor its earlier promises to Ankara.

"Our patience is not unlimited. Unless the terrorists in Manbij are removed within a few weeks, our waiting period will come to an end," Erdogan said, noting the military preparations were under way.

Ankara sees the Kurdish militia in Syria, known as the People's Protection Units (YPG), as a terror group and has long been angry at Washington for arming it.

U.S. President Donald Trump threatened over Twitter in mid-January to "devastate Turkey economically" if Ankara would hit the YPG amid U.S decision to pull out its troops from Syria.

Ankara and Washington agreed on a road map on Manbij last June, which involves, according to Ankara, the YPG's withdrawal from Manbij and the town's joint control by Turkish and U.S. forces.

Other than Manbij, the YPG has two self-declared autonomous cantons on the eastern side of the Euphrates River along the Turkish border.

"It does not look probable that the U.S. would withdraw and hand over Manbij to Turkey," said Haldun Solmazturk, who chairs the Incek debates at the Ankara-based 21st Century Turkey Institute.

After the U.S. unexpectedly announced last month it would withdraw troops from Syria, the YPG started talks with the Syrian government, signaling it would hand over the town to Damascus in case of a Turkish offensive.

While the Russia-backed Syrian army has reinforced troops around Manbij following the U.S. announcement, top U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed that Washington would not leave its Kurdish ally without protection.

A Turkish operation to kick the YPG out of Manbij is now even less likely compared with several months ago, Solmazturk said, arguing Ankara's interest in Manbij has much to do with domestic politics.

"The government needs a victory ahead of the upcoming local elections," added Solmazturk, a former army general.

Turkey is scheduled to have local elections in late March, in which the ruling party led by Erdogan may, according to some public surveys, suffer a significant loss in voter support amid high inflation and soaring food prices.

Despite Ankara's pressure, U.S. and Turkish soldiers have so far only conducted joint patrols on the outskirts of Manbij while the town remains under U.S. and YPG control.

Ankara has often criticized Washington for much delay in the implementation of the road map on Manbij and expected the town to have been cleared of the YPG by the end of December at the latest.

A day after Erdogan's threat of military intervention, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who was in Washington for talks, said there had been progress in the implementation of the road map.

He also revealed that Ankara and Washington had established a joint task force in charge of monitoring the U.S. withdrawal from Syria.

However, the analysts believe the task force is just another tool for the U.S. to stall for time.

"The creation of a task force is yet another diplomatic maneuver by the U.S. to buy time," stated Murat Bilhan, the vice chairman of the Istanbul-based Turkish Asian Center for Strategic Studies.

Noting it will take time to determine the terms of reference for the task force, he said that "this is also aimed at preventing Turkey's operation on Manbij."

"The U.S. would not withdraw troops from Manbij," maintained Bilhan, a former diplomat, who sees the chance of a Turkish operation against Manbij very slim under the current circumstances, as it would mean a military confrontation with the United States.

Work has begun to determine the composition of the administration and the security forces for Manbij following the YPG's removal, Cavusoglu said.

Ankara says a security force composed of locals should be in charge in Manbij following the YPG withdrawal and that the administration of the town should be at the hands of locals rather than the Syrian government.

Under the Manbij plan, Ankara also expects Washington to disarm the Kurdish militia both in Manbij and on the eastern part of the Euphrates.

All the analysts agree that a Turkish takeover of Manbij would not be well received by Russia, a partner of Turkey in the so-called Astana process aimed at settling the Syrian conflict politically.

Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said Thursday that Moscow expects Ankara to boost its efforts for the establishment of a demilitarized zone in Syria's Idlib province.

The message is that Moscow wants Ankara to fulfil its responsibilities regarding Idlib in line with the deal concluded by the Turkish and Russian presidents in September last year, said Koni.

Take action over Idlib rather than getting engaged in Manbij or on the eastern part of the Euphrates against the YPG is Moscow's message, echoed Solmazturk.

Under the Idlib deal, Turkey should have persuaded radical Islamist groups there by mid-October to withdraw into its inner parts for the creation of a 10-15-km-wide demilitarized zone around the province.

However, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaida-linked jihadist group, has now gained control of no less than two thirds of the province following clashes with Turkey-backed rebel groups last month.

"Zakharova's message is clear: leave Manbij to Syria and focus on fight against terrorists along your border," remarked Bilhan.

The analysts do not think Ankara would wish to get involved in fight against the jihadists in Idlib despite Moscow's call.

The Turkish army would not want to join the clashes in Idlib, because some of the Islamist groups there are close to Turkey, noted Koni.

Turkey sees Manbij as an easy prey, while dealing with the problem in Idlib or the Kurdish militia on the Euphrates' east runs huge risks, Solmazturk argued.

Turkey is now in the midst of an enormously difficult decision-making process regarding Syria, said Bilhan.