Syrian government forces entered a strategic area around the northern Syrian city of Manbij on Friday, a statement from the General Command of the Syrian army said. Turkey accused the Syrian regime of "psychological operations," as Syrian media played footage of its soldiers singing patriotic songs as they entered areas that the US says it is withdrawing from.
The vacuum in north and eastern Syria now threatens a new round of violence if Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iran can't come to an agreement. Rumors began on Friday morning that the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish group that had been partners with the US in fighting ISIS, was withdrawing from Manbij.
Manbij was liberated from ISIS in 2016 by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is a part.
However Turkey, which views the YPG as a terrorist group linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), vowed to stop the SDF's progress, launching an operation in the fall of 2016 dubbed Euphrates Shield. Since then Turkey has agitated for the US and the SDF to hand over Manbij.
In the summer of this year, the US and Turkey announced joint military patrols around the city. On December 12, Turkey vowed to launch an operation in northern Syria and clear the border of a "terrorist corridor." A week later US President Donald Trump announced the US was withdrawing from Syria.
Trump's decision set up a scramble for influence and control in the areas held by the SDF, which about one third of Syrian territory. The SDF reached out to France, Russia, Egypt and the Syrian regime in Damascus to discuss what might come next.
It is worried about a Turkish military operation, because Turkey had launched a similar operation in the Kurdish area of Afrin in northwest Syria in January 2018 and forced the YPG out. Some 15,000 Syrian rebels had also signed on to help Turkey's operation.
Syria's regime maneuvered carefully to find a way to check the Turkish moves. Turkey sent a high-level delegation to visit Moscow on Saturday, including Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Presidential adviser Ibrahim Kalin, the defense minister Hulusi Akar and others. Turkey is seeking to negotiate Russia acceptance of a Turkish operation in eastern Syria, similar to the one Turkey and Syrian rebels carried out in Afrin in January 2018.
Cavusoglu said he had a fruitful meeting about Syria in Moscow. "[We] assessed steps we have taken so far and evaluated how we can coordinate our efforts from now onwards." Trump has also indicated in a speech on December 26 at Al-Asad airbase in Iraq that the US would coordinate its withdrawal closely with Ankara.
But Russia has said that the Syrian government should take control over areas the US is withdrawing from, praising the US move as a "step in the right direction."
To preempt Turkish moves, the YPG said it was considering withdrawing from Manbij on Friday morning. "In light of the ongoing threats by the Turkish state to invade northern Syria... so we call on the Syrian state to which we belong... to send their armed forces to receive these points and protect the area of Manbij."
The Syrian general command went on TV to say that their forces were moving toward Manbij from the village of al-Arima, around 20 km. away. Footage showed the Syrian fighters in green uniforms in the fog and rain singing songs praising Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
Turkey was caught by surprise. Ankara said that "once terrorist organizations leave northern Syria, Turkey will have nothing to do there." This might come as a surprise to the Syrian rebel groups such as Ahrar al-Sharqiya that had vowed to attack Manbij this week, after relying on Turkish government promises to return parts of Syria to its "true owners," a code they felt meant Syrian Arab rebel groups. Even though Turkey has supported the Syrian rebels, it wants to work closely with Russia because it has a pipeline collaboration in the works with Moscow, as well as an S-400 air defense system it is seeking to purchase.
In addition, Turkey, Russia and Iran are working on a Syrian constitutional committee and want to meet again in Astana or Sochi in the new year. Turkey and Russian signed a ceasefire deal in Idlib in northern Syria in September, showing that Turkey and Russia can work closely together on Syrian issues. But Turkey must balance this with its sense of commitment to the Syrian rebels who expect it will stand by them.
Iranian media has been celebrating the Syrian government's surprise move toward Manbij. Press TV announced the Syrian army had entered Manbij "for the first time in years."
Tasnim news was also excited by the news. Moscow seems pleased as well. "#USwithdrawal raises the question of who will control territories left by Americans. It is obvious that it must be the legitimate Syrian Government," the Russian Embassy in the UK tweeted.
The US-led Coalition, which has forces in Manbij, said that the information about the changes in military forces was incorrect. "We call on everyone to respect the integrity of Manbij and the safety of its citizens." US commanders met with members of the local Manbij military council. There are discussions about whether the US will seek to take back weapons it supplied to local forces as the US withdraws. "Planning is ongoing and focused on executing a deliberate and controlled withdrawal of forces while taking all measures possible to ensure our troops safety." US Senator Marco Rubio said the US withdrawal might slow its withdrawal, which is supposed to take up to 100 days.
U.S. Marines conduct a live-fire demonstration near At-Tanf Garrison, Syria, Sept. 7, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Carlos Lopez)
The Syrian government move to seek to seize areas around Manbij is only the beginning of the struggle for eastern Syria. The US had not withdrawn. The battle against ISIS is still going on in the southern Euphrates River near the Iraqi border.
The SDF still has tens of thousands of fighters. Turkey has also vowed other operations, potentially near Tel Abyad or along the border in northern Syria. This is a large area and the Syrian regime has only grabbed a dozen kilometers or more. With French forces in the area, and US claims that it will withdraw in coordination with Turkey, it is not clear what comes next.
For Turkey to launch any real operation it will need approval to use the air space of Syria or at least guarantees that Russia and the Syrian government's air defense will not interfere. For now the US air force appears to still control the airspace in eastern Syria, at least until the last US forces are out. The moves on the ground and in the air are just beginning.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.