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US, Turkey Commit to Work on Implementing Roadmap in Syria’s Manbij

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu expressed commitment in addressing “their common concerns in a spirit of allied partnership,” and working on a roadmap to ensure security and stability in Manbij.

Cavusoglu met with his U.S. counterpart Pompeo in Washington, D.C., on Monday to reach an accord to resolve differences that hamper a healthy cooperation between two NATO allies in northern Syria.

Ahead of the visit, Cavusoglu insisted that the implementation of roadmap, which according to Ankara contains a measure to secure the withdrawal of the Kurdish militia from Manbij, would be the major topic to be discussed during the meeting.

A statement shared by U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert on Twitter said both diplomats “reaffirmed their joint resolve to fight terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.”

“They considered the recommendations of the Turkey-U.S. Working Group on Syria pertaining to the future of our bilateral cooperation in Syria on issues of mutual interest, to include taking steps to ensure security and stability in Manbij,” the statement said.

“They endorsed a Road Map to this end and underlined their mutual commitment to its implementation, reflecting agreement to closely follow developments on the ground.”

Manbij is under control of a Kurdish militia seen by Ankara as a hostile force due to its affiliation with outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting the Turkish state for self-rule in southeastern Turkey for decades. Therefore, the U.S. alignment with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), dominated by PKK-affiliated YPG, remains a source of friction between the U.S. and Turkey.

Last month, both allies agreed on a roadmap for Manbij, but the terms of the accord and how to implement them remain a matter of ensuing diplomatic controversy. The State Department statement does not say anything whether the differences were resolved.

“I am pleased that we have achieved considerable progress on the YPG/PKK and we expect concrete results for our meeting with Secretary Pompeo this morning,” Cavusoglu said of the meeting, expressing positive sentiments over the talk.

Differences Persist Over Manbij

The two allies’ priorities and competing agendas in Syria constitute main components of discord between Ankara and Washington. For the U.S., blocking the Islamic State’s (ISIS) regrouping remains the number one objective.

Keeping a check on the Kurdish militia, however, has emerged as an indispensable staple of Turkey’s recent Syria policy and it is this factor that pits Ankara against its allies. The U.S. has nearly 2,000 special forces deployed in Manbij, providing assistance to SDF and ensuring stability in the Kurdish-held city.

“The Americans and the Turks are still not in agreement over what is to be done with the security and governance structures in Manbij, and how any disputes between U.S.-backed and Turkish-backed local partners are supposed to be mediated,” Nicholas HerasMiddle East Security Fellow at Center for a New American Security, told Globe Post Turkey.

At the heart of this disagreement,” he argued, “is what is to be done with the Manbij Military Council and the Manbij Civil Council, both of which are currently providing security and governance for Manbij and which have been doing so for almost two years now.” 

He thinks that if the Americans had their way, both of these councils would remain partners in whatever future arrangement is made in Manbij.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly called on the U.S. to halt its ties to the Kurdish fighters, to no avail. Turkey’s threats for a new assault against the city after the takeover of Afrin from the Kurdish militia has created the risk of an inadvertent confrontation between the troops of two NATO allies.

According to Heras, the Turks view both councils as a Trojan horse for the PKK to continue to operate in Manbij. He said: “This is still a major difference in viewpoint between the Americans and the Turks. However, the fact that this statement was released today shows that there is still a willingness on both sides to try to find a compromise.”

“But one suspects that the Americans, who are actually in Manbij right now and have the greater concentration of firepower to protect it, will eventually get their way and preserve the status of their councils,” he added.

In late January, the Turkish forces and allied rebels launched an attack against northeastern Syrian enclave of Afrin held by the YPG. After two months of ferocious battle, the city was taken. President Erdogan then set Manbij as the next potential target to be cleared of YPG and SDF elements.

Turkey long pressed the U.S. to secure the pullout of SDF fighters to the east of Euphrates after the capture of Manbij from ISIS in 2016. But that never happened.

“It’s very hard to know the state of U.S.-Turkish relations in Syria because of the Trump administration’s fluid strategy in that country which changes by the week,” Max Abrahms, Assistant Professor of Political Science in Northeastern University, told Globe Post Turkey.  

“This is actually a continuation of Obama’s ambivalent approach to Syria. Trump’s predecessor vacillated over whether to support regime change in Syria by encouraging the rebels while offering inadequate material assistance,” he noted, elaborating on the roots of shifting U.S. policy toward the Syrian conflict.  

Although critical of Obama’s approach to Syria, Trump has been no more consistent, calling for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country before pledging to keep them there for the foreseeable future, he argued.

According to him, the current U.S. president is supporting to strengthen the SDF only after a mutually acceptable roadmap with Turkey.

But Ankara’s view of SDF as a terrorist outfit presents challenges for a workable mechanism in Manbij and other parts of northern Syria where the Kurdish forces are present.

“So, we will have to wait to see whether claims of U.S.-Turkish amity translate into anything substantively important in Syria. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see the kinds of reversals that have typified the U.S. approach to Syria spanning the Obama-Trump administrations,” Abrahms said in conclusion. 

Apart from Manbij, the Turkish-U.S. relations face a tough trial over an array of unresolved thorny matters. The ongoing imprisonment of U.S. citizens, including Pastor Andrew Brunson, in Turkey, the purchase of Russian S-400 missile system, the efforts of a bipartisan group of U.S. senators to block the delivery of F-35s, Turkey’s threat of retaliation, the U.S. decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from a number of countries, including Turkey are currently the major sources of squabble and tension.

During his meeting with Pompeo, the Turkish foreign minister said Pastor Brunson’s situation has been improved. The pastor was transferred to another prison, he noted, adding that other improvements such as access to books without restriction and receiving medical aid whenever needed also took place.

But such reassurances hardly seem to assuage the anxiety and resentment of the U.S. side which unconditionally demands the release of the U.S. pastor who has been in jail since October 2016. A Turkish court last month refused to release Brunson who faces charges of espionage and terrorism. He would be sentenced to 35 years in prison if convicted.

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