Kurds and Their Allies in Syria Count On Promises of U.S. Support
Posted January 31, 2018 9:50 p.m. EST
MANBIJ, Syria — The front line between rival U.S.-backed and Turkish-backed militias in northern Syria, just eight miles north of Manbij, snakes over mostly barren hillsides and through newly planted olive orchards. It consists of many miles of bulldozed earthworks, with fortified bunkers every few hundred yards.
This is the line, along the Sajur River valley, that Turkish forces would have to cross if ordered to carry out President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threat to extinguish Kurdish control in northern Syria, and it is also the line the U.S. military has said it will not give up to Turkey, its NATO ally.
The possibility of a military conflict between two NATO allies is unprecedented but, after years of deteriorating relations between Turkey and the United States, not unthinkable. If Turkey were to attack Kurdish forces and their allies in Manbij, and the U.S. military intervened, the strains on the NATO alliance would be extreme.
The local front-line commander for the Manbij Military Council, Shiar Gherde, is keenly aware of the tenuous nature of his position, but his worries are not tactical. “This is a political conflict now, more than a military one,” Gherde said during a tour on Wednesday of his fighters’ fortifications. And politically, as he saw it, the Americans are on their side.
The Manbij Military Council is aligned with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, and while the majority of the council’s fighters are Arabs, most of its field commanders, like Gherde, are Kurds.
Gherde took out his Samsung tablet to consult a military map online, thanks to a strong signal from his enemies’ Turkcell network. Like most Kurdish commanders, Gherde has no formal rank. He pointed to the northeast at a hillock surrounded by whitish earthworks, which he said was the local Turkish base, then consulted his map to work out the distance: 3.5 kilometers, or about two miles. Clearly visible, the base was out of rifle range, and even out of range of their big .50-caliber machine guns nestled just behind the berms.
During the day it was mostly quiet, Gherde said, save for a few gunshots ringing out, as happened three times during our two-hour-long visit. “It’s a front line, so it’s always risky,” he said. But on Monday and Tuesday nights this week, he said, this particular position took fire from heavy machine guns, though no one was hurt.
The Turks, he said, no longer use artillery to strike their positions, because it leaves craters, and the U.S. coalition troops based nearby arrive quickly to document such breaches of the cease-fire negotiated by the U.S. and Turkish militaries, a cease-fire that has mostly held here for more than a year.
“The Americans come here a lot,” he said of the coalition troops. “We know we can count on them, because they’ve promised us.”
The sound of an unseen drone caused everyone to look up. “American,” Gherde said. He took a call on his walkie-talkie and then reported that a Turkish drone was on its way, too, and soon a second set of buzzing engines, also unseen, could be heard. “They could call in artillery,” he warned, advising everyone to leave, as his fighters calmly ducked into bunkers.
Manbij has been particularly on edge in the past 12 days, as Turkish forces have pressed an air and ground offensive against the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in Afrin, 80 miles to the west. Afrin is one of three northern provinces that are majority Kurdish and loosely aligned in what the Kurds call the Rojava self-administration area.
Erdogan, appearing on television in combat fatigues at one point, vowed to clear Kurdish forces from all of northern Syria. “Step by step we will clean our entire border,” he said Sunday. There are no Americans in Afrin, but from Manbij eastward, U.S. forces are fighting alongside the Kurds against the Islamic State. The Americans are also actively training Syrian rebel units, including the Manbij Military Council in this area.
The Afrin offensive and the Turkish president’s bellicose stance alarmed people here, and prompted international criticism, including from President Donald Trump and the U.S. government. The offensive also raised concerns that the cease-fire around Manbij might break down, and many Kurds worried that the Americans would abandon their allies, particularly since the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has been defeated in the Manbij area.
Those concerns were largely dispelled, however, after the commander of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, said in an interview on Sunday with CNN that the United States would not withdraw from Manbij.
A spokesman for the U.S. coalition, Col. Ryan Dillon, confirmed Votel’s remarks. “We’re going to continue to do the mission that we have been doing in that area for more than a year now,” Dillon said of Manbij. “We have no intention to stop.” He said that American patrols were active throughout the area, and that U.S. troops were monitoring the cease-fire. Training for the Manbij Military Council and Syrian Democratic Forces would continue, he said, as well as efforts to facilitate their role in the fight against the Islamic State in other parts of Syria. The U.S. military did not grant permission to visit its small base in Manbij, located about 10 miles west of the city, but small convoys of Humvees and armored vehicles were a frequent sight on the highways in the area. The base appeared much smaller than the other two main bases for U.S. troops in northern Syria. It is unclear how many American soldiers are stationed there, but the Pentagon in December confirmed that about 2,000 U.S. troops were in Syria fighting the Islamic State. (Dillon declined to say how many of those troops were in Manbij.)
Manbij is a predominantly Arab city in northern Syria, which the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces retook from the Islamic State. Its current population of 300,000 includes about 120,000 refugees from other parts of Syria, again mostly Arabs, according to the head of the civil administration in Manbij, Ibrahim Kaftan, an Arab himself.
People in Manbij were initially alarmed because Manbij is mostly flat terrain, unlike the more rugged area around Afrin. “The first week of the Turkish offensive, there was concern about it, but soon it was like the shepherd boy who cried wolf,” Kaftan said.
Turkish forces have still not succeeded in taking the city of Afrin, even after heavy aerial bombardments, which also encouraged people in Manbij, he said. “We trust our friends in the coalition,” he said. “Of course they’re going to protect us. Now our allies are committing to work with us, and Erdogan can’t cross that line.” He said U.S. coalition officers had assured Manbij authorities that they would not abandon them. Dillon said that contacts with the Turkish military and government continued at all levels and had not been hampered by reaction to the Afrin offensive. There are Turkish officers in the coalition’s headquarters in Kuwait, for instance. “We have dialogue on a daily basis in our headquarters, and we maintain dialogue with liaison officers in Ankara,” Turkey’s capital, “and there are other leader engagements that go all the way up to President Trump and President Erdogan,” he said.
Last week, in fact, Trump and Erdogan spoke by telephone about Syria, although the two governments had dramatically different readouts of their conversation. A White House official said Trump asked Turkey to “de-escalate, limit its military actions and avoid civilian casualties” in Afrin, while Turkey claimed that Trump did not discuss the violence in Afrin.
Kurdish leaders have been upset that the Americans have not done more to restrain Turkey in Afrin. “In Manbij we and the coalition worked together and took ISIS out,” said Shervan Dervish, the spokesman for the Manbij Military Council. “But now they are attacking us in Afrin and we have to reduce our forces against ISIS to defend Afrin.”
Gherde, on the front line near the Sajur River, is now 32 and has been at war since 2011. He is still single. “There’s no time for getting married now,” he said. On the conflict, he took the long view. “This war will still be going on in 2022,” he said. “And the Americans will still be here.”