The Syrian government forces have entered the northern town of Manbij on the Turkish border earlier today. The Syrian military command announced in Damascus that the operation stemmed from the commitment to “impose sovereignty to each inch of Syrian territories and in response to calls of locals of Manbij city.”
The announcement reiterated Damascus’ twin objective of “smashing terrorism and expelling the invaders and occupiers out of Syrian soil.” The government troops have hoisted the Syrian Arab flag in Manbij.
In a highly significant move, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov promptly welcomed the development. “No doubt, this is a positive step towards stabilizing the situation,” the spokesman said. He added that the expansion of the zone of the Syrian government troops’ control “is a positive trend.”
It stands to reason that Moscow mediated between the Syrian Kurdish leadership and Damascus. There have been reports that Syrian Kurdish delegations visited Moscow this week as well as the Russian military base at Hmeimim in Syria. A senior Kurdish leader in Manbij told Reuters, “We want Russia to play an important role to achieve stability.”
Indeed, Moscow needs no prompting from anyone in this regard. The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on Wednesday, “The question of fundamental importance is who will assume control of the regions the Americans will vacate. It should be the Syrian government… We believe that the Syrian government is equipped to maintain stability through dialogue and interaction with all the national patriotic forces. This dialogue in the interests of all Syrians can help complete the routing of the terrorists and preclude their reappearance in Syria. It is important not to interfere with the Syrian society’s efforts on the political track.”
The fact of the matter is that while Russia welcomes Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria and regards it as “important in that it can promote a comprehensive settlement of the situation” Moscow remains extremely wary of what it entails. So far, even after a week of Trump’s announcement, Washington has not contacted Moscow to explain its decision.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov drew attention to this while talking to the media in Moscow today: “To the best of my knowledge… Washington wants its coalition partners to assume responsibility. French, British and German service personnel are also illegally deployed on the ground. Of course, there are also the coalition’s air forces on whom they want to shift an extra financial burden. We hope to receive specific explanations… on the assumption that the end goal of all counter-terrorist operations in Syria is to restore Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
The known unknown will be the terms of any Faustian deal between Washington and Ankara with regard to the future of the Syrian territories under American control. A US military delegation is expected in Ankara. Moscow and Damascus (and Syrian Kurds) would not rule out the possibility that Pentagon commanders would work on the “neo-Ottoman” and secretly encourage Turkish revanchism. Meanwhile there are also reports that Turkish forces are moving toward the frontlines facing Manbij in “full readiness… to start military operations to liberate the town, according to Reuters.
Suffice to say, Damascus and Moscow have pre-empted Ankara in the race for Manbij. Put differently, they have created a new fact on the ground, which either Ankara has to learn to live with or use military force to change. The latter course is fraught with immense risk, apart from severely jolting the Turkish-Russian political understanding over Syria. It is unlikely that Turkey will push the envelope.
However, to my mind, Turkish President Recep Erdogan is unlikely to cross lines with the Kremlin. A high-powered Turkish delegation comprising Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Defence Minister Hulusi Akar, Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and the presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin is expected to travel to Moscow on Saturday. No doubt, Moscow hopes to engage Ankara constructively.
Interestingly, amidst the dramatic developments concerning Manbij today, Russian President’s Special Representative for the Middle East and African Countries, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov disclosed in Moscow today that the Guarantor States of Astana Process (Russia, Turkey and Iran) may hold a summit in Russia next week, depending on the schedule of the three presidents.
Curiously, there has been no reaction from Washington to today’s developments in Manbij. American troops have been patrolling in Manbij town and the tense front line between Manbij and adjacent towns where fighters backed by Turkey were based. Having received the orders from Washington to withdraw from Syria, the local US commanders in northeast Syria will be in a quandary.
Nonetheless, it will be a bitter pill for the Pentagon commanders to swallow that the Syrian Kurds are overnight reconciling with Damascus. This will become additional fodder for Trump’s detractors in the US, too. In fact, sniping has already begun in Washington.
On the other hand, the Syrian Kurds, who have been the US’ main allies in Syria up until recently, have openly declared that they have invited the government forces to enter Manbij. They said in a statement today, “Due to the invading Turkish state’s threats to invade northern Syria and displace its people similarly to al-Bab, Jarablus and Afrin, we as the People’s Protection Units, following the withdrawal of our forces from Manbij, announce that our forces will be focusing on the fight against ISIS on all the fronts east of the Euphrates.”
The statement added that the Syrian government forces are “”obliged to protect the same country, nation and borders” and also protect Manbij from Turkish threats. It leaves the door wide open for the Syrian government forces to eventually regain control of the entire territory vacated by the US.
Assad has offered the integration of the Kurdish fighters into the Syrian Army under separate regiments. The prospects are that Assad’s offer will find acceptance among the Kurds at some point soon. There has all along been a tacit co-habitation between the Syrian Kurdish fighters and the government forces operating in northern regions bordering Turkey. It will be recalled that Assad quietly went o the aid of the Kurdish fighters in February when the Turkish army attacked Afrin region in the northwest in February.
Clearly, it is nonsense to say that the Kurds have been “thrown under the bus”, as Trump’s critics in the US are alleging. The plain truth is that the US created the illusion in the Kurdish mind that the creation of another Kurdistan on Syrian territory, similar to the one in Iraq, could become a possibility. But, fundamentally, Kurds will reconcile with Damascus. The comfort level between the Kurds and the Russians is also appreciable, historically. Moscow has consistently held the view that the Kurds must be represented at the negotiating table in any intra-Syrian peace process. The speed with which Kurds began mending fences with Damascus only underscores that they never quite trusted the Americans and all along had kept their options open.