Has the US conceded to Turkey in Manbij?

Idiz, Al Monitor, May 30, 2018

say major differences on multiple levels make a breakthrough in US-Turkish
strategy on Syria difficult. 
Said. US forces set up a new base in Manbij, Syria, May 8, 2018.

If one is
to go by leaks to the
 as well as official statements out of Ankara, Turkey and
the United States have essentially worked out a “road map” for
Washington-backed Kurdish fighters to leave the northern Syrian city of
Manbij near the Turkish border. Accordingly, once the People’s Protection
Units (YPG) — which Turkey considers a terrorist organization and an
existential threat to its security — evacuate Manbij, Turkish forces
would move in and work with US forces already there to provide “stability and
security” in the city. The next stage would be to negotiate the
YPG’s expulsion from lands east of the Euphrates River along Turkey’s
border with Syria.

The only
problem with this optimistic scenario is that the details are flowing from the
Turkish side, while Washington is holding its cards close its
chest. A joint statement issued following
technical talks May 25 was shorter on specifics than what
reporters are being told in Turkey.
The statement
read, “The Turkish-US Working Group on Syria met today in Ankara to
continue ongoing conversations regarding Syria and other issues of mutual
interest and cooperation. The two sides outlined the
main contours
of a Road Map for their further cooperation in
ensuring security and stability in Manbij.” It also noted that Foreign
Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will consider the
recommendations of the working group when they meet June 4 in Washington.
News that
the two countries had produced a “road map” is not new, of course.
Cavusoglu had referred to one on a number of occasions, but his remarks needed
clarifying. When he suggested in March that the sides had arrived at an
agreement, it was not fully corroborated by Washington. Cavusoglu had to backpedal,
saying he did not mean “an agreement was reached,” but that an
“understanding had been reached.”
also mentioned the road map in April, after meeting with Pompeo on the
sidelines of a NATO foreign ministers meeting, adding a telling
caveat when informing
about their talks. Cavusoglu said the YPG would
leave Manbij according to the understanding arrived at with Washington, but
warned that Turkey would intervene unilaterally, as it had done in Afrin and
Qandil previously, if the YPG did not depart.
the latter part of the statement, Cavusoglu was referring to
Operation Olive Branch, mounted by Turkey in January against the YPG
in the Syrian city of Afrin, and the frequent operations Turkey conducts
against the Kurdistan Workers Party in the Qandil Mountains of northern
Iraq. Cavusoglu’s remarks thus indicated that Ankara was retaining the
military option in Manbij, which clearly suggests that nothing had been
finalized with Washington. 
diplomats remain doubtful despite the joint statement following the May 25
talks. “Arriving at an arrangement over Manbij and the lands east of the
Euphrates would mean that Turkey and the US have recalibrated their
relationship and restored mutual confidence,” a diplomat told Al-Monitor,
speaking on the condition of anonymity due to his sensitive position. He
went on to note the multiple problems that continue to overshadow
Turkish-American relations and the less-than-friendly climate between the
two capitals.
unlikely that Washington would want to appear to have caved in to Ankara,
especially in light of Turkish military threats, without gaining
substantial concessions in return,” the source said.
diplomats also argue that Washington will not commit to a concrete
position before the Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled
for June 24. Most opposition commentators in Turkey believe
promises by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to send the military
to Manbij to expel the YPG, with or without US support, had merely been
populist bluster.
instance, Can Atakli of the opposition daily Sozcu wrote that all the
talk out of Ankara about an operation against Manbij has been toned
down in the lead-up to the elections. “Until the snap elections, Manbij was
our ‘red line
,’ and the presence of American soldiers there was not
important. We would enter one night and get rid of them all [the YPG],” Atakli
argued in his column, before going on to question why no one mentions this
anymore. “Was it that we knew all along we could not go there, even if we
wanted to, and the decision to call snap elections provided an excuse [to
downplay this topic]?”
There is
also growing agreement among Turkish analysts that a military option in Manbij
would be difficult for Turkey to pursue. Many say the favorable conditions
in Afrin for Operation Olive Branch — which got the green light from
Moscow while the United States looked away because it had no forces
there — do not exist in Manbij.
In an
article for Gercek Gundem, Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Naim Baburoglu pointed to
what Turkey was up against. “The operation against the YPG in Afrin may
have been highly successful but Ankara’s ultimate aims in Syria will only
be fulfilled if Turkey can extend its
to Manbij and lands east of the Euphrates,” Baburoglu wrote.
He added,
however, that the front against Turkey had grown larger following the Afrin
operation, with the express determination of France and Britain — Washington’s
partners in Syria — as well the EU, to support the YPG. “As
Turkey heads fast toward more isolation in the West, it has to produce new
strategies and avoid steps that will also cast a shadow on its success in
Afrin,” Baburoglu said.
Orhan, coordinator for Syrian studies at the Ankara-based Middle East Strategic
Research Center, also underlined the difficulty facing Turkey in northern
Syria. He wrote recently that the discrepancy between the Turkish and US positions
on the YPG can only be overcome if a formula is found that enables Washington
to maintain its zone of influence in Syria while also addressing Turkey’s
concerns. Orhan believes that even if such a formula can be found, it will
still be difficult for Turkey to sever the link between the United States and
the YPG, because Washington does not want to lose the YPG to Iran.
also does not believe Turkey will mount a military operation against
Manbij. “Nevertheless, Turkey will want to turn Manbij and [land] east of
the Euphrates into a long-term arena for conflict by cooperating with Iran and
Russia,” he wrote. “Turkey’s hand will be stronger in such a conflict
because the US will be left confronting a large number of challenges in
the region.”
Even if
Turkey were to choose this path, it is still not evident that it would get its
way with regard to the YPG. This leaves a political settlement with Washington
as the only viable option. The two sides are currently in the throes of
such a deep and unprecedented crisis of confidence in their relationship that
it will take much diplomacy for them to arrive at a mutually beneficial
arrangement in Syria. If they can overcome the crisis, it will spell a new
dawn in ties and have implications for Syria, too. That, however, remains a big
assumption for now.
acrimonious statements by Erdogan and members of his government indicating the
United States is more of an enemy than a friend, and similar
sentiments coming from Washington — especially Congress, where talk is of
slapping sanctions on Turkey — do not suggest that the sides are on the
verge of a major breakthrough anytime before Turkey’s elections.