U.S. Central Command chief General Joseph Votel confirmed on Sunday that America has no intention of withdrawing from Manbij, northern Syria, despite Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowing an invasion of the city following an attack on Afrin, to Manbij’s west.
Asked whether the United States would agree to withdraw troops from Manbij to please the Turkish government, Votel told CNN that this option was “not something we are looking into.” The Kurdish outlet Kurdistan24 notes that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had demanded the U.S. withdraw from Manbij—where it is aiding local fighters maintaining a security force against the Islamic State—”immediately.”
Cavusoglu also claimed that Erdogan had requested U.S. President Donald Trump withdraw troops from Manbij during a contested phone call last week in which Trump reportedly told Erdogan to cease spreading “falsehoods,” presumably referring to Turkish claims that there is an Islamic State (ISIS) presence in Afrin. Turkish officials denied that Trump made this demand.
Votel had confirmed that the United States is working to create a “border security force” in Syria intended to prevent supporters of the Islamic State from crossing into Syria via Turkey and replenishing the fighting strength of the terrorist group. The Turkish government launched an attack on Afrin a week later, claiming that this American-led force was a “horde of murderers” that must be “choked” out of Syria.
Turkey’s objection to the force is the inclusion of members of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), American allies and key fighters in the liberation of much of Syria from ISIS, including their “capital” in the country, Raqqa. Votel recently visited Raqqa to meet with Syrian Kurdish fighters currently there to ensure it stays out of jihadist hands.
Ankara contends that the YPG is indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist, U.S.-designated terrorist separatist organization. Washington treats the YPG and the PKK as separate entities.
Manbij, like Afrin, lies in Syrian Kurdish territory known as Rojava, or western Kurdistan. It maintained a small Islamic State presence in 2014 that the YPG eliminated in 2016. Turkish officials claimed that they killed Islamic State terrorists in Afrin last week, a claim the United States categorically refuted.
Erdogan has asserted that “Operation Olive Branch,” as the Turkish military have dubbed the invasion of Syria, is necessary in the war on terrorism. He has confirmed that the Turkish military will attack Manbij after eliminating the YPG in Afrin.
“Operation Olive Branch will continue until it reaches its goals. We will rid Manbij of terrorists, as it was promised to us, and our battles will continue until no terrorist is left until our border with Iraq,” Erdogan said on Friday. “Turkey will rid Syria’s Manbij of terrorists following Afrin. Nobody should be bothered by this. Turkey is not occupying Afrin, only fighting against terrorists there.”
The Turkish president warned that Turkey will not stop at Manbij, either, but “continue [the operation] as far as the border with Iraq until no terrorist is left.”
Erdogan has described the attack on the Kurdish forces as a battle within a larger “postmodern Crusades” and claimed that the Kurdish presence in Afrin is artificial, despite being located within a traditionally Kurdish region.
It remains unclear when the Turks will strike Manbij. The YPG claimed on Friday that all Turkish military attacks on Afrin have failed, halting any move west for the Turkish troops. In addition to potential clashes against more Kurdish troops and U.S. soldiers, the Turkish military must contend with the possibility of being targeted by Syrian government forces, commanded by dictator Bashar al-Assad. The Damascus government has warned that it will attack Turkish forces if they invade Syria, though they do not maintain a presence in Kurdish territories.
Assad’s Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) claimed on Sunday that the Turkish invasion has killed at least 86 civilians in Afrin. Pro-Erdogan news outlets claim Turkish forces are striving not to kill civilians.