Why is the Manbij offensive important

| USA caught off guard by the Turkish offensive?

The Wall Street Journal research in the context of the Syrian civil war

In the recent offensive led by Turkey against Jarablus and other villages in the corridor near the border with Turkey, still held by the Islamic State (IS), it quickly became clear that it was primarily directed against the Kurdish people's defense units of the YPG. It was also evident that Turkey would not launch such an offensive without the consent of important actors such as Russia, Iran and, above all, its most important ally, the US. The talk quickly came of a betrayal by the USA of the most reliable fighters against ISIS - or at least of a very extensive equality of interests between Turkey and the USA. On August 30th, the Wall Street Journal the article "Turkish Offensive on Islamic State in Syria Caught U.S. Off Guard ". He questions this popular reading.

The article describes in detail how the US government was taken by surprise by the latest offensive that the Turkish armed forces carried out together with a conglomerate of various Islamist militias of the Free Syrian Army and jihadist groups. The offensive was initially announced as one of the international anti-IS coalition. If we believe the article, however, it is far from being presented as a common military action by the mutinational anti-IS coalition. Instead, the coordination of military actions at the highest management level has collapsed. This is due to deep political differences between the Turkish and US governments.

Differences in the relationship between the USA and Turkey

The USA and Turkey had initially agreed to carry out a joint operation with the participation of US special forces. Instead, a unilateral approach by the Turkish armed forces that came as a surprise to the United States, with the participation of Islamic and jihadist militias, which the United States had classified as too radical at the time of joint operations planning. Other points of contention were the depth of the Turkish penetration into the Syrian region, as well as fighting against the Kurdish YPG. They prompted the US to make the limits of US air support clear to Turkey. Once again they demanded that the YPG withdraw their forces from the predominantly Arab Manbij back to their original positions on the other side of the Euprhat. In fact, a little later, on the basis of this, there was also a ceasefire between the YPG and the forces involved in the Turkish offensive.

Whether the said US agencies really knew nothing about the imminent Turkish offensive and, above all, its unilateral character, cannot be judged from a distance. However, there is much to be said for the credibility of the information. The fact that the Wall Street Journal was able to distribute the article without denial from the White House is of a quality of its own. It points to a clear distancing of the USA from the Turkish operation, not officially, but semi-officially through the media. The conflict between the Turkish and the US government is thus open.

Complex constellation of interests in the Syrian civil war

How does this conflict fit into the constellation of events and interests of the Syrian civil war? Allegations are still being made that the US is pursuing the strategy of overthrowing the Ba'ath regime in Syria by means of Islamist rebel groups, or that it has betrayed the “Syrian revolution” by not supporting so-called moderate rebels. Both narratives cannot explain the actions of the USA, especially in view of the recent Turkish offensive - because the civil war and the interests of its actors are more complex:

Both Russia and the USA have long since come to terms with the fact that a complete military victory for one or the other rebel or government faction in the Syrian civil war is completely out of the question. Despite their differences, it is neither about overthrowing the Ba'ath regime nor about completely annihilating the rebels. If this were the case, military action on both sides would have been far more decisive in recent years. Almost all relevant actors should be aware that the territorial integrity of Syria can only be preserved, if at all, with major concessions to the respective local forces. The fight against IS is also of great importance. We should keep this in mind if we are to understand the recent differences between the US and Turkey.

Surprisingly for both sides, the USA and Russia, local Kurdish forces led by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, PYD, were able to take over administrative administration and military control in northern Syria in recent years after the withdrawal of the Baath regime. After heavy defeats in the course of 2014, their YPG militias finally became the decisive force in the fight against IS in the eyes of the US government. While they had been continually disappointed politically and militarily by numerous Arab rebel groups in the previous years, they have now gradually shifted their support to the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF. Under the leadership of the PYD, this alliance largely comprises units of the YPG and some Arab militias. The SDF succeeded in taking large parts of northern Syria from IS and unifying them under the Kurdish name of Rojava.

Although neither the USA nor Russia share the socio-political orientation of the PYD and perceive Rojava as a Kurdish name for northern Syria, because as a project to overcome capitalist conditions, the PYD has been able to enter into a relatively diverse range of partnerships with both powers in recent years. Your performance in the fight against the jihadists made this a question of realpolitical reason. The same applies to the PYD. She knows that she has to find an arrangement with both powers if she wants to withstand IS.

Although they do not like the socio-political impetus of the federalization project a la PYD - federalization as such opens up the possibility of gradually ending the war in the individual regions of Syria. Since the great peace solution will not take place anyway, parts of the PYD's program have a certain degree of acceptance by the USA and Russia. A lasting weakening of the PYD and the YPG militias, which could endanger the fight against IS or shift the balance of power in the civil war to other jihadist groups, is therefore not in their interest. At the same time, however, they both have no interest in a PYD and YPG that are too strong and too independent - also because good relations with Turkey are too important for both of them in the medium to long term. This gives rise to the wish to retain certain possibilities of influencing the YPG. The USA has such possibilities through its constant military (air) support for the fighting YPG / SDF units; Russia through its diplomatic influence on the Baath regime, as well as its ability to stop Turkish air strikes against the YPG in case of doubt. The past military successes of the YPG are not based on this alone, but would have been inconceivable without these factors.

Pragmatic alliances

In the light of these facts, it becomes easier to understand the Turkish Yarablus offensive and the Turkish-American differences, as well as the limits of the Turkish-Russian rapprochement: Allowing Turkey a limited offensive is both an attempt by Washington and Moscow, theirs Improve past strained relations with Ankara. Improving relations with Ankara is of crucial importance for the longer-term solution to the Syrian civil war, as the AKP government had for a long time overthrown the Ba'ath regime. With the replacement of Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu at the latest, this goal was gradually replaced by a more pragmatic approach: Ankara is more and more willing to make concessions here if Washington commits itself to a contaiment strategy towards the PYD / YPG, or at least limited to controlling its others Advance acts.

The PYD / YPG also had to be warned by agreeing to the offensive in Turkey: coordinate your approach with us, we will only support you insofar as our interests are not negatively affected in the Syrian civil war. Why now the differences between Ankara and Washington? The answer is pretty simple: A deep penetration of the Turkish-led offensive to Manbij or even further to al Bab had never been a serious issue for Washington - and certainly not a comprehensive attack on the YPG. Although the Turkish president presents the offensive as such, the manageable military capacities provided by Turkey do not allow this anyway. They are sufficient for the formation of small bridgeheads or the occupation of the immediate border area.

Any further offensive would seriously affect US and Russian interests: The US needs the PYD in the fight against IS, and Russia would see if the corridor held by IS (between the cantons of Afrin and Kobane) was closed by forces of the Free Syrian Army and jihadist groups indirectly threatened the positions of the Syrian government forces in the north and east of Aleppo.

Diplomatic pressure on Turkey to quickly cease its offensive and conclude a ceasefire was to be expected in this constellation - especially since some of the militias it supports would have liked to advance further. We can consider the passing on of the information about the US-Turkish differences to the Wall Street Journal as part of such a diplomatic threatening gesture to Ankara.

For the PYD and its Rojava project as a whole, the latest Turkish offensive did not pose a serious threat from a purely military point of view. The political implications are far more serious: They now know that the closing of the corridor will be far more difficult to convey diplomatically, when it could be achieved militarily: If Washington wants to obtain further concessions from Ankara for a possible peace solution in the Syrian war, it cannot agree to the closure of the corridor under the leadership of the YPG militias. Otherwise, Ankara would continue to provide logistical support to jihadists. The closing of the corridor by Arab militia, also organized within the SDF, is likely to prove difficult, if only because they lack numbers.

And finally, the PYD was made aware of the political fragility of its project: For the PYD, the federalization of Syria may involve a comprehensive reorganization of social relations in the sense of overcoming capitalist conditions and denominational policies - for its (temporary) Russian and US allies Federalization means something completely different: The gradual pacification of the Syrian civil war along linguistic-ethnic as well as religious-denominational lines, which have become deeply inscribed in the political geography of the country through the multitude of massacres and expulsions throughout Syria. In the end there could be predominantly Alawi-Christian, Sunnist and Kurdish regions. Federalization would be domesticated on a question of the administrative structure of Syria.