A version of this article was published in The Arab Weekly
The city of Minbij in northern Syria has become a source of severe political tension between the United States and Turkey. It might also be the key to reducing tensions and normalising relations.
BACKGROUND IN MINBIJ
The regime of Bashar al-Assad withdrew from Minbij in July 2012, making it one of the first larger cities in Syria to be freed from the rule of the crime syndicate posing as a government in Damascus. Over the next months, the population of Minbij engaged, as did the neighbouring city of al-Bab and many other cities across Syria, in an effort at self-government.
Minbij was one of the areas where the opposition did best at keeping the necessary state institutions like healthcare going, while removing those, like the secret police, that have provoked the uprising in the first place. In late 2013, the Islamic State (ISIS) had begun establishing a presence in Minbij, taking advantage of some of the corruption and mismanagement among rebel factions in the city. In January 2014, as the rebellion went on the offensive against ISIS, the jihadists consolidated in eastern Aleppo and overtly took over Minbij. But, even under the rule of ISIS, civil and political resistance remained active in Minbij.
Apart from its own failings, the revolutionary council in Minbij had been struggling against a concerted policy of the Assad regime to prevent any actor setting up an area in Syria that could serve as an alternative model to its system of theft and repression. By August 2012, Assad had advanced from the use of heavy artillery and helicopter gunships to the use of fixed-wing aircraft. Airstrikes against densely-populated civilian areas have been a feature of Syria’s war ever since, with the accompanying destruction of property, displacement of people, and mass-murder.
This strategy—a profound admission of failure from the Assad regime—nonetheless served the regime’s survival strategy, Kheder Khaddour, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie, has documented. “As it could not adapt to meet the demands of its citizens, the regime took advantage of the instruments of war to alter the surrounding environment,” Khaddour has written. “By annihilating the environment in which its opponents could operate, the war left the regime with no counterpart with whom it needed to negotiate. In fact, destruction served as a buffer against negotiations, enabling the regime to remain in place.”
The regime’s capacity is severely limited, so it concentrated its annihilation tactics on the mainstream opposition, and cynically bolstered ISIS and like-minded groups, with the intention, as its spokesman had plainly stated, of fostering a binary choice they believed Assad would win—the dictator or a terrorist takeover.
AMERICAN INTERVENTION AND TENSIONS WITH TURKEY
After the American-led coalition intervened in Syria against ISIS in September 2014, it fell into alliance with the People’s Protection Units (YPG). After a troubled start to the campaign in early 2015, the tide turned in June of that year when the YPG, backed by American air power, took Tel Abyad in northern Raqqa province, severing a key ISIS cross-border supply line. The YPG continued to push west and by the spring of 2016 had linked up with Kobani and held the border territory up to the east bank of the Euphrates River. Minbij, on the other side of the river, presented a special problem.
Turkey was furious from the get-go at its NATO ally for backing the YPG, since the group is, as U.S. intelligence has recently stated in public, the Syrian department of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organisation that has been at war with Turkey since 1984. The PKK’s goals were openly separatist at foundation, and Turkey is unconvinced by the PKK’s purported ideological evolution. If states have any one interest it is their territorial integrity; as such, Turkey regards the YPG/PKK as a security threat at the existential end of the spectrum.
Westerners tend to find it difficult to empathise with Turkey’s concerns about the PKK for a number of good and bad reasons. The easiest way to overcome this blind-spot is, as Faysal Itani, a Senior Fellow at The Atlantic Council, recently suggested, imagining what Israel’s reaction would be if American policy was to fight ISIS in southern Syria by installing Hizballah on the Israeli border.
PUSHING ISIS OUT OF MINBIJ
Despite this, in May 2016, a U.S.-backed, YPG-led offensive began in Minbij, and Turkey supported it, having been promised that the YPG would withdraw east of the Euphrates once it was over and the Arab inhabitants of the city, helped by Turkey-aligned rebels, would be able to govern in the aftermath. This was, as The Wall Street Journal noted at the time, a “meaningful shift for Turkey,” which had “previously threatened to shell [the YPG] if it advanced close to Manbij,” and had in fact shelled the YPG when the YPG pounced on the Arab town of Tel Rifaat, with Russian support, in February and March of 2016.
The YPG did not withdraw from Minbij after it fell in August, however, instead setting up the Minbij Military Council (MMC), and imposing the PKK’s ideological, authoritarian governance apparatus on the area. Worse, from Turkey’s perspective, the YPG made a dash west from Minbij to try to link up with Efrin, its canton in the north-west of Aleppo, which would have left the YPG controlling all of Turkey’s border. Turkey intervened to block the YPG’s maximalist program with Operation EUPHRATES SHIELD. After some initial clashes with Turkey and its rebel allies around Minbij during EUPHRATES SHIELD, a ceasefire was arranged by the Americans between the YPG and Turkey.
Immediately after the YPG captured Minbij, “the regime took over the schools and paid the salaries of civil servants,” a resident, Muhammad Noor, explained in an open letter to The Daily Beast. In exchange, the regime was allowed to target those who had risen against it. “Anyone who’s a known regime opponent is … subject to arrest,” Noor wrote. Dozens of anti-Assad Syrians have been abducted from the YPG areas and taken to Damascus to prisons like Sednaya where death is the least of the consequences.
This model, where Assad pays for public services and in exchange controls key security nodes, is seen elsewhere in the “Rojava” territory, and is part of a broader trend of increasing integration between the YPG-held areas and Assad’s system. In March 2017, the YPG openly handed over a belt of territory west of Minbij to the pro-Assad forces to protect the YPG from Turkey. Days later, the U.S. very publicly deployed troops to Minbij to deter Turkey, setting up an odd situation in which one NATO state jointly deployed with Russia to protect a listed terrorist group from another NATO state.
This situation has left Minbij as a running sore in U.S.-Turkish relations. For America, concerned only with ISIS, Minbij is a demonstration of the problem with Turkey, which was originally, more focused on Assad than ISIS, and then—after Turkey’s turnaround in 2016—the PKK over ISIS. For Turkey, Minbij is the prime example of America’s broken promises to Turkey.
The U.S.’s attempt to run a narrow counterterrorism war against ISIS without getting entangled in Syria’s broader war, while it was in fact parcelling out territory to participants in that war, has led to a fragile, potentially explosive situation in Syria. ISIS was a priority to no other contender—and indeed the U.S. focus on ISIS made it less of a priority for everybody else. The other actors, inside Syria and outside, were focused on the order that would exist after ISIS was gone.
In the YPG, the U.S. chose a uniquely isolated party on which to put all of its chips, and now finds that its continued presence is opposed by Iran and Russia, as would be expected and cannot be changed, and also by Turkey. If U.S. interests, notably keeping ISIS down, are to be fulfilled via a long-term U.S. presence in Syria, as explained by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, this is not a tenable position for America; it will have to bring Turkey onside.
THE WAY FORWARD
To normalize relations with Turkey requires rebalancing relations with the YPG, and Minbij is the place to start. When Tillerson was in Ankara earlier this month and met Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he offered to support Turkey’s acquisition of a buffer zone in Efrin and to set up joint U.S.-Turkish patrols in Minbij, while over the long term diluting the U.S.’s ties with the YPG, according to David Ignatius at The Washington Post.
So, will the U.S. follow through on its promises this time in Minbij, and would emplacing forces less hostile to Turkey in Minbij work to reset U.S.-Turkey relations?
Michael Stephens, a Research Fellow at RUSI, tells me that he doubts the U.S. will accede to Turkish demands over Minbij, but “a U.S. accommodation of Minbij would be helpful in the current climate”. Stephens suggested that this could be done without creating some wholly new governing structure, “if the MMC was stripped away from YPG oversight”.
Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, agreed that allowing a “buffer strip” in Minbij would go a long way to mollifying the Turks, and whereas Stephens believes Minbij is unlikely to “be the end of the story,” Ford is optimistic about its solvent effects. “I don’t think the Turks insist on all of Rojova being dismantled, at least not right now,” said Ford, noting he has never heard this from Turkish officials. But Ford also doubted the U.S. will move in the direction of Turkish interests in Minbij.
Ford pointed to the U.S. officials who are driving the policy, namely Brett McGurk and SOCOM, as the principal bulwarks to an accommodation with Turkey. Stephens concurred with this, but noted that McGurk’s impending exit means there is some (more) uncertainty over the direction of U.S. policy in Syria.