U.S. Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk assured reporters on a visit to Manbij, Syria, that American forces would not leave the northern city even if Turkish forces attack it. Asked about concerns that Turkey would come into direct conflict with U.S. troops, Funk said, “It’s not in my job description to worry, my job is to fight.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched “Operation Olive Branch,” an invasion of Kurdish-held territory in Afrin, northern Syria, in mid-January, allegedly to reduce a presence of “terrorists” on the Turkish-Syrian border. Ankara considers all Syrian Turkish forces “terrorists,” even those allied with the United States.
America keeps a base in Manbij, east of Afrin, where it cooperates with the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), a conglomerate group largely made up of Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ). The YPG were largely responsible for the eradication of the Islamic State (ISIS) from much of Syria, including the former ISIS “capital” Raqqa, and work with the United States, Russia, and almost any anti-jihadi forces on the group. They have avoided both conflict and cooperation with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
At the Manbij base, Funk affirmed the United States is “here to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS is maintained in this area” and had no plans to vacate, according to Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper. Funk also offered support to the SDF, which is not a fully Kurdish force.
“I’m very confident in the [Syrian Democratic Forces] leadership. When nobody else could do it they retook Raqqa. I think that has earned them a seat at the table,” he said. The SDF also eradicated all ISIS presence in Manbij itself in 2016.
U.S. Central Command chief General Joseph Votel told reporters in January that the United States had no plans of leaving Manbij, dismissing Turkish demands for U.S. troops to leave. Withdrawal, Votel said, is “not something we are looking into.”
Unlike Votel’s remark, Funk’s statement is the most categorical statement of support for the SDF since Turkey announced the invasion of Afrin. When Erdogan confirmed the presence of Turkish troops across the border, the State and Defense Departments both repeatedly claimed that Turkey had “legitimate security concerns” in Afrin, seemingly implying that Erdogan was right to view the anti-ISIS Kurdish forces as a threat. The YPG do support the establishment of a sovereign Kurdish state, which may include Turkish territory. Kurdistan spans land across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
The State Department did, however, “urge Turkey to exercise restraint” without issuing a statement of full support to the YPG. Erdogan and his government have appeared to respond to the request by escalating its belligerent rhetoric, threatening Manbij in addition to Afrin and warning Turkish troops may reach all the way to the Syria-Iraq border.
“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 in a speech last month. “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.”
He added that, though Turkish forces were “not occupying Afrin,” they would “continue [the operation] as far as the border with Iraq until no terrorist is left.”
Hurriyet notes that, some days later, Erdogan curtly demanded the U.S. withdraw from Manbij. “Why are you staying there?” he asked. “Leave.”
On Thursday, Erdogan changed his tune yet again, threatening to move troops not east but south to Idlib. Idlib remains heavily populated by Syrian Sunni Arab rebel forces and was the target of an alleged chemical weapons attack by Assad’s forces this weekend, following the death of a Russian pilot rebels shot out of the sky.
“We will continue fighting terrorism, even despite the [Western] calls to stop the operation in Afrin. After we defeat the terrorists in Afrin, we will defeat them in Idlib too,” he proclaimed. Erdogan did not elaborate on how the presence of Assad forces in Idlib would alter the Turkish military’s calculus, as they are currently fighting in territory only populated by SDF troops.