Middle EastWar

Turkey threatens to “take initiative” in Manbij ahead of ministerial meeting in Washington

Turkey will not hesitate to act if members of the mainly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) do not leave the Syrian town of Manbij, the country’s national security council said, ahead of a meeting this week between Turkish and American ministers in Washington.

There is a U.S. military presence in Manbij and a Turkish operation risks confrontation between the two NATO allies.

“In the meeting, it is stated that the terrorists in Manbij should be removed from the area, otherwise Turkey will not hesitate to take initiative by itself as it did in other regions,” said a Wednesday, March 28 statement from the security council, which is chaired by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It said the same applied east of the Euphrates river.

The Milli Guvenlik Kurulu includes Turkish military Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar and other senior military leaders as well as select members of the Council of Ministers.

Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to expand Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch military campaign in Syria east into Manbij and beyond, most recently after Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition fighters took control of the majority Kurdish enclave of Efrin from the YPG.

Operation Olive Branch was launched on January 20, just three days after the MGK said steps should be taken “immediately and resolutely” to defeat threats from Syria.

The YPG makes up the backbone of the U.S.-led Coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces which recaptured Manbij from Islamic State in August 2016, but Turkey sees the group as terrorists inextricably linked to the outlawed Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Control of Manbij was handed to the SDF-aligned Manbij Military Council, and some YPG fighters remain in the area.

U.S. forces were deployed in the Manbij area in March 2017 to reassure the SDF and deter hostilities between factions on the ground, but since then Turkey-backed FSA fighters have often fired at MMC forces near the frontline.

Turkey-US bilateral meeting

Turkish foreign ministry Undersecretary Umit Yalcin is visiting Washington on Friday to meet U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan to discuss Turkey-U.S. relations, and international and regional matters including cooperation in Syria and Iraq, Hurriyet Daily News reported.

The meeting was rescheduled after President Donald Trump sacked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was due to meet Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on March 19. Tillerson delegated his authority to Sullivan during the transition to Mike Pompeo, who moves to lead the State Department from his role as director of the CIA.

The U.S. has repeatedly warned that Turkey’s campaign in Efrin is a distraction from the fight against Islamic State in Syria.

On March 22, a high-level U.S. delegation visited Manbij, including senior State Department official William Roebuck and Major General James Jarrard, who commands Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve. Roebuck served as Political Counselor and acting Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus between 2004 and 2007.

On Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters that talks with Turkey about Manbij were ongoing.

“We have open dialogue with the Turkish government right now. We’re working it and we’re working it forward,” Mattis said. “And, so far, as you’ve noticed, there’s been no move on Manbij.”

“There have been strong disagreements on some issues that are having to do with Syria. It has never impeded the candor or the frequency in our meetings,” he added, saying that it is “a very sensitive issue for the Turks because they’ve had innocent people die at the hands of PKK terrorists.”

The PKK has fought a decades-long insurgency in Turkey, primarily in the country’s predominantly Kurdish southeast.

Mattis reiterated that Operation Olive Branch is affecting anti-ISIS operations in the Middle Euphrates River Valley in eastern Syria.

“The Turkish actions in northern Syria – let me be specific here – Afrin area have distracted the SDF from the fight going against the remnants of ISIS,” he said.

The Manbij Conundrum

MGK warns of operations in Iraq

The MGK statement echoes a speech Erdogan gave on March 19, a day after Turkish troops and Syrian opposition fighters took control of Efrin after the YPG withdrew in order to prevent civilian casualties and the destruction of the town. Erdogan vowed to expand Turkey’s campaign in Syria to Manbij, Kobane and other Kurdish-held territory as far as the Iraq border in the east, saying the capture of Efrin “marked a comma. God willing a full stop will come next.”

In that speech, Erdogan also again threatened a military operation in Iraq’s Sinjar region, the heartland of the Yazidi people, saying that Turkey “may turn up in Sinjar suddenly one night and clean up the PKK there.”

The MGK on Wednesday said it expected Iraq’s government to prevent the PKK operating in Sinjar and in the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq.

The council statement said Turkey expects Iraq to prevent PKK activities in its territory and “if it is not possible Turkey will prevent them by itself.”

With reporting from AFP

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