At showdown in Manbij, Turkey as NATO ally hangs in the balance
Washington may have to choose either to betray the Kurds or to seal the fate of Ankara’s pivot away from the West
Over the past several months, as Turkish-backed forces stormed into Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Syria, the United States sat on the sidelines. The Trump administration’s indecision underscores just how reluctant Washington is to risk losing a key NATO ally in Turkey.
Amid US equivocation, and after Turkey’s successful capture of the city of Afrin, French President Emmanuel Macron assumed the mantle of the West’s messenger, drawing a red line for Ankara’s ambitions in Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s goal of carving out territory must stop short of the city of Mabij, Macron said, lest the Turks want to face French troops first.
But, Cengiz Candar writes for Al-Monitor, in the end what matters is whether the United States decides to stand with its Kurdish allies in Manbij, or abandon them.
“The indecisiveness in Washington on Manbij, President Donald Trump’s recent statement that he wants the United States to ‘leave Syria soon’ and his decision to freeze American assistance to the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] embolden the Turkish leadership’s determination to move into the contested city in northern Syria,” Candar writes.
“Following the departure of Rex Tillerson, who is to be replaced by Mike Pompeo as secretary of state, Manbij’s fate is uncertain. Neither Pompeo nor Trump’s incoming national security adviser, John Bolton, are particularly known as Erdogan fans.”
In fact, both Pompeo and Bolton are known as having hawkish positions on both Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has enabled Turkey’s advances. But no one in the Washington foreign-policy establishment wants to be seen as the one who lost Turkey as a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally. Add to that President Trump’s seeming admiration of Erdogan’s authoritarian bent and his campaign promise to stop spending money on operations in the Middle East and you have strong mix of reasons not to confront Ankara.
“If American policymakers get over their indecisiveness on Manbij, they have to either take a Turkey-appeasing stand that would be termed another American betrayal by the Kurds or stand by the US partnership with the SDF, putting Turkey-US relations on a collision course,” Candar says. “Can Turkey dare to set such a course?”
Turkey’s increasing closeness with Russia has given Erdogan more freedom to defy Washington. “Without Russian support, we cannot even fly drones over Afrin,” CNN-Turk quoted him as saying. “That is exactly the reason Putin is investing in Erdogan,” according to Candar. “The cracks between the NATO allies are deepening, and Manbij is the most vulnerable fault line.”