By Arab News
By Menekse Tokyay
The Turkish president promised on Sunday to clear the entire Syrian border of “terrorists” after Ankara urged Washington to withdraw its military from a Kurdish-held town.
The call followed new commitments from the US to cease supplying weapons to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish militia that Turkey has been fighting in northern Syria for more than a week.
As Turkish troops intensified the Olive Branch operation in Afrin on Sunday, Turkey continued to warn that the offensive would move eastwards to Manbij, where hundreds of US troops are based.
“The terrorists in Afrin and Manbij cannot run from the painful end that awaits them,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan told members of his party in northern Turkey.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Saturday it was “compulsory for the US to withdraw from Manbij as soon as possible.”
Turkey says an offensive against Manbij, about 100 km from the current operation, is an extension of its plan to remove what it describes as a terror threat along its border with Syria.
But if it goes ahead, the offensive would move the Turkish operation into a new level of military and diplomatic complexity, pulling in different groups and parties in the area.
H.R. McMaster, national security adviser to US President Donald Trump, spoke with Erdogan’s chief foreign policy adviser on Saturday to attempt to rebuild broken trust between the two countries.
According to Turkish press reports, McMaster repeated that weapons will no longer be delivered to the YPG. The same commitment was given many times to Ankara in recent months by both Trump and his Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Manbij is located 30 km west of the Euphrates and was captured from Daesh by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in 2016. The SDF are backed by the US and dominated by the YPG.
The town, which has a mixed ethnic population including Arabs and Kurds, has been one of the main fronts for the anti-Daesh coalition’s ground war. Following its liberation, the Pentagon preferred that the YPG remained in the town to guard it against a potential Daesh counter attack.
But Ankara is concerned that the Syrian Kurdish militias want to establish a corridor to the Mediterranean coast by linking the regions they administer.
Turkey has called for the YPG to be withdrawn from Manbij and has been enraged by the US support for the group. The militia is an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is seen by Ankara and many Western countries as a terror group. The US and Turkey are suppose to be allies through their memberships of NATO.
“It is unthinkable for a strategic ally to arm and train what its decades long strong ally consider to be a terrorist organization,” Mehmet Ogutcu, a former diplomat and chairman of the Bosphorus Energy Club, told Arab News.
He said Turkey’s request for the US to withdraw from Manbij is to avoid completely rupturing ties between the two countries.
Dr. Eray Gucluer, a terror expert from Altinbas University in Istanbul and at the think tank ASAM, said: “The US is currently losing power and prestige in the region, and it wouldn’t afford keeping its soldiers in Manbij if Turkey conducts an operation.”
Ali Semin, a Middle East expert at Istanbul-based think-tank BILGESAM, thinks Turkey would prefer to resolve the Manbij situation through agreement with the US.
“There will probably be no military offensive or Turkey may use Free Syrian Army fighters to avoid any direct clash with the US if the American soldiers remain there. It was the same case when Turkey agreed with Russia before the operation to Afrin as Russian troops were deployed in the region,” he told Arab News.
As concern grows over Manbij, fighting ramped up in Afrin on Sunday, with Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters capturing a strategic hill.
AP reported that constant shelling and clashes could be heard at the Turkish border town Kilis as Turkish aircraft whizzed above and plumes of smoke rose in the distance.
The Turkish forces have been trying to capture Bursayah hill since the offensive started on Jan. 20.
The Turkish military said its soldiers and allied Syrian opposition fighters captured the hill, assisted by airstrikes, attack helicopters, armed drones and howitzers.
“In its previous cross-border operation, Turkey’s aim was to secure a safe zone to resettle the Syrians who fled war in their country, but this time Turkey wants to clear these zones completely from all kinds of terror threat until the border with Iraq,” Semin said.
“Manbij bears a strategic importance for Kurdish militia to reach the Mediterranean shores. It is exactly the establishment of such a YPG-controlled ‘terror corridor’ that Ankara wants to block along its border.”