WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert emphasized to reporters on Tuesday that the “general roadmap” for Manbij that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu endorsed the previous day was “conditions-based.”
“That means that things can change over time, as conditions change on the ground,” she said.
In contrast to Turkish officials, including Cavusoglu, who have insisted there is a specific timeline for a political transition to remove the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from Manbij and change the local governing council, US officials have refrained from articulating such a timeline.
“We can’t attach a specific timeframe to it,” a senior State Department official explained to reporters. There are “several phases” to the roadmap, and we will “move to the next phase, when the previous one is completed.”
That, in turn, “will depend on conversations, negotiations, and the physical disposition on the ground in the Manbij area,” he continued.
The dispute between Washington and Ankara centers on the role of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), who provide the leadership of the SDF.
Ankara regards the YPG as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and as a terrorist organization, while the US disputes that characterization.
On Tuesday morning, the YPG announced that it was withdrawing its military advisers from Manbij and that none of its fighters remained in the city.
The US account of the negotiations leading to Monday’s understanding hint at the possibility that the YPG was engaged in some form.
“The roadmap was briefed to elements” in Syria, another senior State Department official explained, “with the [SDF], and we’ll need their cooperation in the implementation.”
“We did an awful lot of diplomatic work with Turkey and with the SDF to try to provide some reassurances and to ensure the SDF can continue the campaign against [IS],” he continued.
The State Department officials emphasized that Manbij is “stable and fairly bustling”—which, they noted, cannot be taken for granted in Syria. Their objective is to keep Manbij that way.
One senior official explained the major source of tension around Manbij. It is rooted in the manner by which the Islamic State (IS) was expelled from the area.
Manbij was a major IS center for planning attacks, and then for terrorists to leave Syria, enter and transit Turkey, and proceed onto Europe.
Following the November 2015 attacks in Paris, the coalition began working with the SDF. After three months of difficult fighting in the summer of 2016, the SDF, backed by coalition airpower, finally succeeded in expelling IS from the city.
Subsequently, Turkey launched a military operation further north, “Euphrates Shield,” with Turkish-backed opposition forces and US advise-and-assist support. They cleared IS out of that area and further helped seal that exfiltration route, a senior official explained.
Of course, that also blocked any SDF movement north toward the Turkish border.
The US-backed SDF and the Turkish-backed opposition force are hostile to one another. So there has been “a fairly tense standoff” between the two. The US has “helped patrol the demarcation line to try to make sure that tensions remain low and de-escalated,” he said.
According to the roadmap, US forces will be joined by Turkish forces in patrolling the demarcation line.
In Manbij itself, security is—and will continue to be—provided by local forces.
Despite Monday’s agreement, significant differences appear to remain between Washington and Ankara that go beyond the timeframe for implementing the Manbij roadmap.
Asked about the claim of senior Turkish officials that Manbij is a blueprint for what will happen in cities like Raqqa or Kobani, a senior State Department official replied, “First I’ve ever heard about it.”