Manbij blast heightens contradiction in north Syria
A suicide blast cliamed by ISIS killed 19 people in the contested north Syrian town of Manbij Jan. 16. The blast targeted a US military patrol that was stopped for lunch at local restaurant, and among the dead were four Americans: two US service members, a defense contractor and a Defense Department civilian employee. The blast comes just weeks after Trump ordered the withdrawal of US forces from Syria, with his administration crowing about how ISIS has been defeated. Just hours after the blast, Vice President Pence embarrassingly boasted: "Thanks to the courage of our armed forces, we have crushed the ISIS caliphate and devastated its capabilities." (NYT, CNN) But an ISIS resurgence is actually a lesser concern than a US withdrawal setting off a scramble for Syria's north that could spark an Arab-Kurdish ethnic war.
“US troops will obviously need to come home and should do so as early as possible,” Refugees International vice president Hardin Lang, who visited Kurdish-held areas of nothern Syria in 2018, told the UN news agency IRIN. "But their withdrawal should not create a power vacuum that leads to renewed fighting."
Recognizing that the withdrawal announcement has put the White House in an untenable position, some members of Trump's own administration are equivocating on the matter. Earlier this month, National Security Adviser John Bolton said the US may keep a base at al-Tanf in southern Syria, and would not exit the north until ISIS has been fully defeated and Kurds were safe from persecution. This of course elicited a sharp rebuke from Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. "Elements of the US administration are saying different things," he said, refusing to meet with Bolton when he visited Turkey last week hoping to strike a deal to secure the safety of Kurdish fighters.
Trump himself also seems to be equivocating, or even flat-out contradicting himself—although in his case it is unclear if there is method to the madness or if he is just confused. On Jan. 13 he confusingly tweeted: "Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds. Create 20 mile safe zone...." If this means anything, it is a call for extending Turkey's "buffer zone" in Syria's northwest across the Euphrates River to the now Kurdish-controlled northeast. A 20-mile zone along the Turkish border would include most of northeastern Syria’s Kurdish-populated areas, including the towns of Qamishli, Amoude and Kobane. So is Trump calling for a Turkish attack on the Syrian Kurds or not? Does he even know? (IRIN)
There's been some confusion until now as to who exactly controls Manbij, which everyone recognizes as a potential flashpoint. Most or all of the Kurdish forces seem to have left Manbij, but a contingent of US troops remain in the town, forestalling a reckoning—for now. Both Assad and Free Syrian Army forces are nearby, each waiting to advance as soon as the US withdraws. Reuters reports that Turkish-backed FSA militia are awaiting a "zero hour" to take Manbij. And the Assad regime, FSA and Kurdish forces are all mutually hostile at this moment.
Reports that Manbij had been turned over by Kurdish forces to the Assad regime appear to have been premature. And Kurdish talks to establish a separate peace with the regime appear to have collapsed. This was reportedly acknowledged this week by leaders of the Syrian Democratic Council, civilian wing of the Kurdish-led US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDC's executive committee told a meeting with tribal sheikhs and notables in al-Darbasiyeh village that talks with the regime have "not yielded a result." The completely unsurprising sticking point: the regime's refusal to recognize the Kurdish autonomous zone in northeast Syria. (Syrian Observer)
Will a US withdrawal mean a power vacuum that leads to renewed fighting?
All too damn likely.