What’s the Matter in Manbij? How an Obscure Syrian Town Could Determine the Future of the U.S.-Turkish Alliance and What to Do About It


Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu is scheduled to meet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington on June 4. The meeting will not just be a friendly a meet and greet between two allies. Instead, the Turkish side is coming with a specific agenda: finalize a “roadmap to resolve the status of the Syrian town of Manbij, and reach agreement on a framework to share control over the city. The Syrian civil war has divided the United States and Turkey, two NATO allies, over how best to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State and, specifically, the role of Kurdish militants in this war.

The fate of Manbij, a small town in northern Syria occupied by the Islamic State until August 2016, is symptomatic of a broader issue for the United States and Turkey. Who should govern Manbij?

Turkey and the United States have incompatible interests in Syria. In a perfect world, the United States would work closely with Turkey, a treaty ally, and a nation-state with whom the United States has a mutual defense pact. However, the two sides could not reconcile divergences over the ISIL threat, and how to sequence the war. The United States favored a limited, special operations force-led campaign, backed by airpower, and narrowly focused on ISIL’s control of territory. Turkey, in contrast, viewed ISIL as a symptom of the broader Syrian civil war and, at first, sought to enlist American support to topple Bashar al Assad, and then advocated for an open-ended “safe zone” in northern Aleppo.

In 2014, the United States tried to enlist Turkey in its nascent war on ISIL, requesting access to Incirlik Air Base for air strikes and surveillance flights. Ankara resisted the American requests, and instead sought to use access to Incirlik as leverage to force the Untied States to hold regime targets at risk. Left with no other palatable options for the ground war against ISIL, the United States went looking for capable and effective local militias — and found one during the battle for the small town of Kobane in late 2014. Now, the United States is working alongside a group called the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is led by the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK is an insurgent group, active in southeast Turkey, and Ankara’s most vexing security problem. The Syrian Democratic Forces, with ample air support from Western forces, have been the key to driving the Islamic State from its short-lived caliphate. But as this has happened, Syrian Kurds consolidated control over a strip of territory in northern Syria, along Turkey’s border.

For Turkey, its interests in Syria were first tethered to the ousting of the Syrian regime. However, as the Syrian Kurds grew in strength, these interests shifted, and are now focused on pressuring the Syrian Democratic Forces and ensuring that it does not win support for a decentralized governing structure. Turkish interests are now security-specific and linked closely to its own PKK problems back home. For the United States, ISIL is the problem and the campaign to defeat it is about securing its homeland and its allies from a virulent jihadist group that is now, finally, on the backfoot. The hurdles for U.S. policymakers and the stakes involved in the forthcoming meeting between Pompeo and Cavusoglu are therefore high as they try to make a deal about Manbij, a town that had been blessed with geopolitical obscurity until this devastating war.

For Washington, a comprehensive solution to the Manbij issue requires making hard choices about American objectives in Syria. After deciding what the United States wants to achieve, the Manbij issue should be folded into a broader policy, before making agreements with external actors about the city’s fate. The United States has an opportunity to settle on the basics of this policy before Cavusoglu’s visit. In doing so, the United States could use the June 4 meeting to discuss options for a more durable solution to manage its relations with Ankara and the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The Manbij Problem: Turkey’s Military Interventions in Syria

Manbij is now under the control of the Manbij Military Council, a civilian body set up by the Syrian Democratic Forces. At the outset of the counter-ISIL campaign, Ankara warned that it would not tolerate a Kurdish militant presence west of the Euphrates River, and instead pushed the United States to work with the Arab-majority opposition to oust ISIL from northern Aleppo. Ankara used its territory as leverage, conditioning the coalition’s use of Incirlik air base on the acceptance of these terms. In July 2015, the United States and Turkey reached agreement on the use of Incirlik and the training of Arab-majority forces in Turkey for ISIL-specific operations, including the liberation of Manbij. This program was outlined in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which allocated $500 million for Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund to train and equip opposition forces in Syria. This effort, dubbed Train and Equip for short, was the centerpiece of a joint U.S.-Turkish effort to defeat ISIL along the border with Syria.

Unfortunately, the program failed. It was too ambitious in scope and, following the Turkish downing of a Russian bomber in November 2015, Moscow prioritized the defeat of Turkish backed groups in northern Aleppo and severing the supply line these groups relied on to continue the fight against regime-backed forces. For the United States, the liberation of Manbij was a necessary to step to facilitate the fight in Raqqa, ISIL’s largest urban sanctuary in Syria.

The Kurdish-led assault of Manbij began in late May 2016 and Kurdish-led forces took the city in mid-August. Two weeks later, on August 24, the Turkish military invaded Northern Aleppo, in an operation dubbed Euphrates Shield. The campaign was designed to force ISIL from the border and also push towards Al Bab, a small town that the Syrian Democratic Forces had planned to take from ISIL as a means to connect with Kurdish held territory in Afrin, an enclave in northwest Syria. The Turkish military took Al Bab from ISIL in late February 2017.

Eleven months later, in January 2018, the Turkish military launched a second operation, dubbed Olive Branch, to take control of Kurdish-held Afrin. This city fell to Turkish-backed forces in March, which then allowed for Ankara to once again focus on the status of Manbij. For Turkey, Kurdish control of the city remained untenable, and a symbol of American disregard for Turkish national security interests. The situation devolved considerably, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan going as far as to threaten American troops, prompting the U.S. military to indicate that it would defend itself from any external attack.

The rapid deterioration in relations prompted U.S.-Turkish discussions about the city and the exploration of a compromise to try and satisfy Ankara’s red-lines in Syria.

Policy Options: What Now?

The policy challenge is easy to understand, but exceedingly difficult to solve: How does the United States maintain its relationship with the Syrian Democratic Forces to maintain pressure on what remains of ISIL in Syria, while simultaneously managing and saving relations with Turkey, a NATO ally? To make matters more complicated, President Donald Trump has also signaled that he intends to withdraw American troops from Syria once ISIL is territorially defeated.

The question, of course, is how to structure such a withdrawal while also ensuring that hostile external actors do not try and take advantage of the U.S. military’s exit and attack the Syrian Democratic Forces, which could undercut the gains made against ISIL. Secretary of Defense James Mattis reportedly favors the maintenance of a small force for this purpose and, ostensibly, to block Iranian-controlled militias inside Syria from expanding their zone of control. However, a coherent strategy for Syria must acknowledge the reality of the president’s push for withdrawal and then devise a policy to protect American interests.

As a first step, Washington should formalize discussions with Moscow about how to end the civil war. This first step will require an American political concession to Russia on its core interest in the conflict: the maintenance of Bashar al Assad, or a close confidante, as the leader of a united Syria. In return for this concession, the United States should extract from Russia a pledge to defend the Syrian Democratic Forces from regime attack and, importantly, a commitment to facilitate political talks about a solution to the broader political challenge: the changing of the Syrian constitution and the codification of some semblance of political autonomy for the northeast. In doing so, the United States would also tacitly acknowledge concurrent Russian-Turkish negotiations about Ankara’s zones of influence, spread across Northern Aleppo and extending into Idlib.

If the United States can secure this agreement with Moscow, the next step is to win agreement from the Syrian Democratic Forces about Manbij. In exchange for an American commitment to protect Kurdish interests in northeastern Syria, alongside a Russian pledge to compel the regime to make political concessions to the Syrian Kurds, the Kurdish-led force would then be asked to make concessions about political control in Manbij to help assuage Turkish concerns. To do so, the United States has two options. Washington could simply tell the group’s leaders of its broader intent, and stand aside as the Syrian Democratic Forces negotiate with the regime and Russia to facilitate some sort of agreement with the central government about control of Manbij. Or, Washington could begin discussions again with Ankara about the Manbij roadmap, including the sharing of vetted lists of men and women who could take part in joint political governance for the city.

The Syrian Democratic Forces is certain to condition any concession on Manbij on reciprocal Turkish action in Afrin. In this scenario, Russia could, once again, play a role and push for the Syrian regime return to Turkish-held Afrin, in exchange for Turkish withdrawal, and the return of Turkish allied militia to other areas in Syria where Ankara is in control, like the towns of Jarablus or Al Bab. After regime return, internal restrictions on Kurdish movement could be eased, allowing for the return of civilians to their homes.

These options could be pursued as a single package, or pursued individually and used as confidence-building mechanisms. However, this strategy is dependent on each external actor in Syria recognizing that their adversaries have core interests in the conflict. Therefore, this policy is dependent on negotiations with Russia, as a means to secure America’s counter-ISIL goals, and potentially reach agreement on a pathway to work together towards an end to the conflict. After taking this first step, the United States can then weave a solution specific to Manbij into a broader policy, and work towards managing Turkish concerns, while not losing America’s Kurdish partners.

The United States and Turkey have radically different interests in Syria and have failed to find common ground. A narrow agreement about Manbij absent a broader policy about the Syrian Democratic Forces, the regime, and Russia risks missing an opportunity to capitalize on the territorial defeat of ISIL. The United States and Turkey are only two of the many actors with vested interests in Syria’s failed state. The forthcoming Turkish-American meeting about Syria offers an opportunity to expand the conversation and to use discussions about Manbij to explore how to move forward and help solve the brutal civil conflict in Syria.

Aaron Stein is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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