ALEPPO, Syria — The Turkish army started the second round of patrols in Manbij, in the northeastern Aleppo countryside, on June 20, two days after implementation of phase 2 of a US-Turkish road map for the city. The United States and Turkey had agreed on June 4 to a plan to jointly manage security and stability in three phases in Manbij, which is under the control of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
According to the US-Turkish road map, the SDF's Manbij Military Council, established in April 2016 after the expulsion of Islamic State (IS) fighters, would remain in place on the condition that all members of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the SDF, leave the council. Turkey considers the YPG to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is banned in Turkey and continues its insurgency against Ankara for Kurdish rights.
The United States insisted that the YPG withdraw from Manbij to avoid an assault on the city by Turkey and the FSA. Turkey and the FSA also view the YPG as posing a threat in the areas under its control in Aleppo countryside, the areas of Operation Euphrates Shield (August 2017-March 2018), including Afrin.
The strategic city of Manbij lies nine miles west of the Euphrates River and currently is surrounded by areas controlled variously by the regime, the YPG and the FSA. The YPG had turned it into an oil transport and distribution hub after taking control of it. Manbij is one of the largest cities in the Aleppo countryside in terms of area and prewar population.
Ahmad Mohamad, a media activist in Manbij, told Al-Monitor, “A Turkish military convoy consisting of several armored military vehicles moved on June 18 [as part of the road map’s second phase] from the Turkish military base located in areas under the control of [Turkish-backed militias of the] Free Syrian Army [FSA]. These areas face the SDF-held village of Ayn Dadat in the Manbij countryside.”
In Aleppo, the Turkish base lies in the southern countryside of Jarabulus, close to the contact, or demarcation, line with the SDF in Manbij. The SDF holds Manbij and its countryside, while the opposition and the Turkish military control Jarabulus and its countryside, located north of Manbij.
Moham added, “The Turkish military convoy entered Ayn Dadat village, where they met up with the US military convoy. Both convoys patrolled along the demarcation line, and the patrol lasted several hours before the Turkish convoy returned to its original positions.” The patrols are being undertaken to ensure that the road map is being implemented, including that the YPG is withdrawing from the area.
Mohamad continued, “This second phase of the US-Turkish road map in Manbij is scheduled to last 45 days, starting from June 18. It should include US and Turkish surveillance patrols in Manbij. The first phase of the road map stipulated the withdrawal [from Manbij] of the People’s Protection Units, which are the backbone of the SDF.”
He noted that the US military had forced the YPG to remove all banners, pictures and messaging of the Democratic Union Party, the political wing of the YPG, and the PKK from the streets and neighborhoods of Manbij. They had also asked YPG leaders and forces on May 26 to leave Manbij, but so far, the YPG have yet to fully withdraw. A sizable number of YPG leaders left Manbij, some headed for Kobani and others to Tell Abyad.
Mohamad added that the third stage of the US-Turkish road map stipulates the formation of a local administration within 60 days. New local and military councils offering services and ensuring security in the city will be formed based on the ethnic composition of the city. Arabs form the majority of the citizens, followed by Kurds and then Turkmens.
The head of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), Abdul Rahman Mustafa, has welcomed the US-Turkish patrols in Manbij. In a June 18 statement, he said, “This is a key step to instill stability in all the liberated areas and to bring back the displaced to their homes and regions. It will save us from the terrorist organizations [i.e., YPG] trying to steal Syrians’ willpower. The coalition will contribute to the election of local councils in Manbij.”
Mustafa Haj Abdullah, local head of the Ankara-backed Political Authority of the City of Manbej — a political umbrella group close to the SNC, with figures based in Euphrates Shield areas and others in Turkey — confirmed to Al-Monitor that the Turkish government had filled the authority in on the main points of the road map. The authority will help create the local administration in Manbij as per phase three.
Haj Abdullah said that contrary to the actual road map, there were no fixed timelines for the plan’s phases as some parties — he had in mind the YPG — are likely not to adhere to the timeline it lays out. According to him, each phase might be longer or shorter than expected, depending on developments on the ground. He said that committees stemming from the agreement will decide on such matters.
“As a political body, we are uniting our efforts with that of the people, regardless of their affiliations,” Abdullah told Al-Monitor. He further stated, “Manbij citizens are cooperating with the US-Turkish road map, which is excellent. People have high hopes for settling the situation in the city peacefully and resolving matters without armed confrontations. Such conflict would cost the people a lot. If the agreement is implemented as needed, the unwanted YPG presence will be gone.”
Abdullah said the Political Authority estimates that more than 60,000 Manbij citizens have been displaced, primarily from Aleppo's northern countryside, near Azaz.
Fayez Sitouf, a fighter from Manbij and a member of the FSA’s Sultan Murad Division in the area of Operation Euphrates Shield in Aleppo’s countryside had previously told Al-Monitor, “I left Manbij in the beginning of 2014 after IS took control. I was not able to return after the SDF rose to power, because I was affiliated with the FSA, which the SDF considers an enemy. I hope to return soon to Manbij and participate in managing the city.”
Beginning in 2017, Turkish-backed FSA fighters tried several times to advance toward Manbij, sparking sporadic clashes between the FSA and the SDF along demarcation lines separating them north of Manbij. The presence of US forces deployed in the Manbij countryside blocked the FSA's advancement. After the FSA and the Turkish military captured Afrin during Operation Olive Branch (January–March 2018), they considered seizing Manbij to push out the YPG.
The current US-Turkish efforts aim at sparing the region more fighting and finding a peaceful solution to ensure the return of the displaced.
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