U.S. forces set up a new base in Manbij, Syria May 8, 2018. Picture Taken May 8, 2018.
(photo credit: RODI SAID / REUTERS)
As Turkey continues its investigation into a vanished Saudi journalist, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said a deal with the US on northern Syria has been postponed. Speaking on Thursday, Erdogan, returning from a trip to Hungary, said the agreement with Washington over the Syrian town of Manbij was delayed “but not dead.”
Manbij is one of a series of interlinked entanglements with the US, Syria and Saudi Arabia. On October 2, Saudi journalist and former Riyadh insider Jamal Khashoggi went missing in Istanbul after visiting the Saudi consulate. Turkey has released video and information alleging that Riyadh was responsible for his disappearance, or even perhaps, for killing him. This has reverberated far away in Washington where the Trump administration has been frantically calling Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, seeking answers. At the same time, Vice President Mike Pence has offered Ankara FBI assistance.
But Ankara has cold relations with Washington over the detention of a US pastor, and because Turkey has alleged the US is working with “terrorists” in Syria. The US-led anti-ISIS coalition has been partnered with mostly Kurdish fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in eastern Syria. However, some of those fighters are affiliated with the People’s Protection Units that Turkey sees as part of the part of the Kurdistan Workers Party. From Ankara’s view, the US, a NATO ally, is thus working with Turkey’s enemies. But the US has said that it wants to remain in eastern Syria until Iran leaves the rest of the country, and Washington sees the SDF as a key partner in Syria.
At the center of the controversy is the town of Manbij in northern Syria that is controlled by the SDF, and where the US has forces. Since June, the US and Turkey have agreed to carry out patrols near the town. They were also training for joint patrols. This was part of a “road map” that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had agreed to with Ankara.
US personnel arrived in Gaziantep on October 2, to begin training with Turkey for joint patrols in Manbij. This happened to be the same day the Khashoggi crisis began, when the journalist disappeared in Istanbul.
ON OCTOBER 3, Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said the Manbij road map should be implemented as soon as possible. “Turkey can take steps at any time to ensure its national security against terror groups in Syria,” Kalin was quoted in the Hurriyet Daily News as saying. Turkey’s defense minister said on October 9 that the training was taking place with the US.
Now the deal is postponed. This may be a method Turkey is using to pressure the US to do more about Khashoggi. Turkey wants the journalist found alive and it hopes the US will pressure Riyadh on his behalf. Turkey and Riyadh have had contentious relations after Turkey sided with Qatar in a dispute with Saudi Arabia in 2017. Furthermore, leaders in Saudi Arabia have condemned Turkey as part of a “triangle of evil” alongside Qatar and other extremists. This is because Riyadh accuses Ankara of siding with the Muslim Brotherhood in other countries, particularly in Egypt, and with Hamas in Gaza. Saudi Arabia supports the current Egyptian government and has opposed the Brotherhood.
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Turkey sees the Khashoggi affair as a way to leverage Washington back into its camp. There are many voices in the US, increasingly in Congress and in major media, which are critical of Saudi Arabia’s current policies. Ankara hopes that the US might now be encouraged to see things from its viewpoint in Syria and elsewhere. The Manbij postponement may relate to that. It also relates to continued US pressure for Turkey to release detained pastor Andrew Brunson.
What is at stake here is a larger regional struggle. The US is close to Riyadh and Jerusalem, and the Trump administration has sought even warmer ties with Israel and the Saudis. Turkey withdrew its ambassador after the US moved its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Turkey has also been meeting with Iran and Russia regarding Syria. It signed an agreement with Russia regarding Syria’s Idlib province.
All of this points to the US being sidelined and even isolated. But Turkey and Qatar are traditional US allies, and the division between them on one side and Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt on the other have divided the Sunni states in the region as Iran seeks greater influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. What happens in Manbij, with pastor Brunson, and with the Khashoggi affair are all tied to this current regional strategic map.
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