Two important developments happened on the ground in Syria during the last few days. Both give the conflict a potential qualitative change in its usual and bloody entanglement.
The first was the deployment of additional US Special Forces around the town of Manbij, which is controlled by the Kurdish majority Syria’s Democratic Forces (SDF). The second was the surprising expansion of a group loyal to ISIL in a strategically critical southern triangle across Syria’s borders with the Israeli occupied Golan Heights.
The Manbij events put the YPG, the US Special Forces, Assad and pro-Iran militias, and Russian Special Forces dangerously close to each other. It all started a little earlier when ISIL surprisingly surrendered the strategic town of Al Bab to the Turkish backed forces “Euphrates Shield” (ES). Few months ago, we explained that this surprising step is possible as ISIL weighs its chances in northern Syria. ISIL based its decision on the simple fact that giving Al Bab to Turkey is better than losing it to Assad or the PKK affiliated “People Protection Units) YPG. Turkish presence in Al Bab will potentially put the Turks in direct confrontation with the YPG in the SDF. It will also complicate the situation on the western Raqqa region hence slow the looming attack on its capital.
Turkey believes that the presence of PKK affiliated forces in Manbij or Al Bab represents a direct threat to its national security. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted three weeks ago that his forces will take Al Bab, then march to Raqqa. But Ankara is more concerned with YPG presence in Manbij. Turkey believes that the presence of the YPG in any area west of the Euphrates represents a direct threat to its security. Both Al Bab and Minbij are west of the Euphrates. If the YPG was able to take Al Bab, it would have been more difficult for the ES to take Minbij later on.
The Turks secretly started to prepare their offensive against the SDF in Minbij. The preparations were detected by both the US and the YPG. In fact, The military council of Tel Ref’at in north Aleppo, which is fighting now to allow the Arab civilians to go back to their villages in YPG controlled areas, has already started preparations for a major offensive against YPG units which, the council says, refuse the Arabs return. The demographic map of this area is directly related to the Kurds aspirations of an entity in north Syria.
Furthermore, Erdogan spoke bluntly March 1 about Manbij being “Arab not Kurdish” and the need to give it back to its original inhabitants. He also said that Turkey is ready for the battle of Raqqa if “allies” (read: US) are sincere. But he simultaneously sent Turkish elite forces across the borders to northern Syria in a sign that he is ready to double down. Clearly, this situation may end up with two allies and members of NATO fighting each other directly and not through proxies as before. US Special Forces are in and around Minbij and Erdogan is sending his forces there to take it from US allies in the YPG and SDF. The configuration is inching towards a bigger problem.
Turkey can count on some of Syria’s armed opposition which is determined to recapture the territories it lost earlier back from the YPG and get Arab inhabitants back to their villages. The opposition had to withdraw in the last two years when it came under attack from both the YPG and ISIL. But now, ISIL seems to understand that it is unable to defend its territories any longer, so it is pulling out.
The game has always been who will rush fast enough to fill the vacuum. And the surprising answer, in this case, was that it was Assad forces and their allied Russian units and militias who were faster than the rest. Assad forces, Hezbollah and the rest of the Shia militias swept large areas east of Aleppo and were able to control part of the road connecting Aleppo and Hasaka.
So, while the Turks were talking about attacking Raqqa, they mean to say Manbij. For them, the road to Raqqa goes through Mibij. And while the opposition is preparing to fight the YPG in that area, Assad and the Russians made full use of the entanglement and swept through east of Al Bab.
Erdogan also wanted to make themselves indispensable to the US in its plan to attack Raqqa. However, Assad and Russia spoiled the Turks came, and made any Turkish participation in the battle of Raqqa virtually impossible without larger conflict.
The Pentagon believes that any attack by the Turkish backed forces on Minbij will greatly complicate not only the possibility of taking Raqqa in the future, but also the general situation in northern Syria. The three main players in that region, the SDF, the ES and Assad forces, will certainly fight each other and ISIL will stand on the sidelines watching. The US military is determined to avoid that scenario. By suddenly abandoning Al Bab to the Turks, ISIL is trying to make it the only scenario possible.
The view of the situation in that region is yet another manifestation of how the lack of a coordinated political approach to fight ISIL (due to different strategic agendas) can create a real chaos and develop into a larger conflict.
While there were mute speculations, after CIA directors Mike Pompeo’s February 9 visit to Ankara, that the Trump administration may review its policies on cooperation with the YPG, the US ties to the Kurdish group improved even more after the visit. Some voices in the US intelligence community warned against unlimited cooperation with the PKK affiliated group. The military saw the question differently. The intelligence views were virtually defeated in the debate that followed Pompeo’s visit to Ankara.
During the last week of February, the problem in northern Syria was pressing on everyone to make a move. It was a crisis in the making. And it threatened to further complicate the conflict. The Turks may shoot at Assad forces and the YPG in Minbij may shoot at both. Time will tell who is right, the CIA or the Pentagon. If the past two years provide a hint, the answer should be clear.
After ISIL withdrawal from Al Bab and the news of preparations for a larger offensive by the Turks and their allies in Syria against the YPG, the Pentagon took a daring step: Deploy US personnel and equipment around Minbij in a visible fashion. The message was clear: Any attempt to attack Minbij will mean engaging US forces directly. What is not clear yet is if the quick moves of Russian and Assad forces to control the area separating Al Bab and Raqqa were done upon a signal from Washington.
The deployment of the fresh US soldiers took place February 22-26. That was the moment when Assad forces made his sweeping progress and took the large swath of territories left by ISIL in the country side east of Al Bab. those forces succeeded in holding positions that practically prevent the Turkish-backed ES from advancing in Aleppo’s east country side without a fight, not with ISIL, but with Assad and his allies, including the Russians. Was it the Central Command that greenlighted the move of Russia and Assad in the east? In any case, the move sealed the fate of the recommendations of those in the intelligence community who really understand the nature of the PKK affiliated YPG.
We are not certain that the only reason behind ISIL’s large scale withdrawals in eastern Al Bab is only meant to allow the conflicting trio of Assad-YPG-Turkey to be dangerously close to one another. While this is obviously a valid explanation, there may be other reasons, like enforcing defenses around Raqqa, or secret arrangements with this or that party of the conflict.
Russian military commanders in Syria strictly instructed regime units not to engage the YPG, the US SF or the Turkey-backed ES. The orders went as far as instructing the units not to even respond if it came under attack from any of the three sides. This is also in line with the Pentagon’s insistence to avoid a larger conflict.
Meanwhile, in the south of Syria, a group of armed ISIL fighters under the name of Jaish (Army) Khaled Ibn Al Walid (JKW) defeated a coalition of other armed Syrian opposition groups in a large and geographically sensitive triangle bordering Israeli controlled Golan Heights. The group carries the name of a companion of Prophet Mohamed who was known as a worrier and a shrewd military commander and died some 1400 years ago.
The fight, which ended February 22, was particularly fierce and extremely violent. A large number of armed men from both sides were killed. Now, ISIL practically controls the triangle between Jordan’s borders with Syria, the Golan Heights and the southern Syrian city of Dara.
JKW is a group of tough fighter who vowed allegiance (Bai’a) to ISIL. This group controls now a strategic hill overlooking the town of Nawa. They also controlled Fahm Al Golan, Al Seal, Tel Al Jumou’, Udwan, and countless other villages. It is a mystery how this group could capture such a huge swath of territories from 11 other armed groups (more than double its previous area of control) within a little more the 24 hours. But the Syrian saga is littered with mysteries anyway. The main two at the current situation is the extent to which the US gave a green light for Assad and Russia to advance rapidly to abort any Turkish plans to take Minbij or attack Raqqa and what really caused ISIL to abandon Al Bab to the Turks, then withdraw from a large part of its territories east of Aleppo.
If only Syria could have been an isolated island.