Can Turkey and the US Open a New Page with the Manbij Deal?

June 4, 2018

The roadmap on Syria’s Manbij is expected to be announced after a final negotiation between Turkey and the U.S., which will be handled between Mike Pompeo and Mevlut Cavusoglu on June 4 in Washington
Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R) meets U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Brussels, Belgium on April 27, 2018. Anadolu Agency

The roadmap on Syria’s Manbij is expected to be announced after a final negotiation between Turkey and the U.S., which will be handled between Mike Pompeo and Mevlut Cavusoglu on June 4 in Washington. According to Turkish sources, the two countries have agreed on a three-step principle roadmap. In the first step, the PKK affiliated YPG forces will withdraw from the Manbij pocket complying with the date that will be determined by the Washington meeting. The second step, according to the sources, will start 45 days after the meeting between Pompeo and Cavusoglu. During this phase, the U.S. and Turkish military and intelligence authorities will launch a joint inspection in Manbij regarding the deployment of the Turkish and Turkish-backed troops there. The third step, according to the agreement, will be taken by both sides to form a local administration in Manbij within 60 days after June 4. This is the most critical part of the agreement, as it will implement a commonly accepted model. According to Cavusoglu, it would also be applied to the rest of PKK/YPG held territory in Northern Syria.

There is two integral parts of the model: providing security and establishing local governance to be responsible for the municipal services that will be formed in line with the ethnic distribution of the population in consideration. Even though it was not mentioned in the agreement, Turkey highlighted the return of Syrians to their homes, which should be interpreted as a significant part of Turkey’s strategy in Syria that is likely to reduce Turkey’s refugee costs in the short term.

Even though it seems that the Manbij agreement can work on paper, realizing the agreement goals might be difficult. There are many ambiguities concerning the U.S.’s strategy over the PKK/YPG in the eastern part of the Euphrates River. The current disagreements over the issues of S-400 aerial missile defense systems and F-35 fighter jets expected to be delivered in 2019 complicates the agreement outcomes for both Ankara and Washington.

The U.S. also wants to overcome the Pastor Brunson issue while negotiating the Manbij model. More importantly, the possible reactions by certain American security establishments such as the Pentagon, particularly the CENTCOM, constitute the most crucial part in implementing the agreement on the ground. The Turkish side, in this regard, has many concerns regarding the U.S. administration’s approval of the agreement in Washington and its implementation by the CENTCOM towards the other specific regions under PKK/YPG control in northeastern Syria. However, Turkey sees the agreement as a starting point to de-escalate the political rift between the two countries.

Under these circumstances, one might wonder how the agreement will be accomplished. The first phase is relatively easy to implement the model. The PKK announced that its forces have already left Manbij. However, the PKK’s close ally and ideologically integral part in the region – the Arab forces – want to stay in Manbij to take responsibility in the process of forming local security and municipal services. Turkey will be opposing this option. For Turkey, this is another way to create a pro-PKK force without the PKK. If such a claim is realized, the U.S. can maintain its support to the YPG. The best deal for Turkey in this stage is to remove all PKK-affiliated persons or groups from Manbij and form local forces, which have no direct or indirect connection to the PKK.

The removal of all PKK-affiliated persons and groups is quite crucial to implement the second phase of the agreement. However, how the agreement will specifically take Turkey’s will into consideration is still an open question. For instance, whether the Burkan al-Furat (the Euphrates Volcano), consisting of Arab military fractions mostly, will leave Manbij or not is of crucial importance for Turkey. The PKK/YPG has been allied with the group, creating room for the Euphrates Volcano Operation when Kobane was attacked by Daesh in 2014. At this stage, American troops will continue to remain in Manbij while Turkey will be establishing observation stations along with the forces that will be mainly composed of anti-PKK/YPG Arabs. According to Turkish sources, there is also a possibility to establish a new observation point on the Turkish border along with a limited number of American soldiers to observe the agreement in Manbij and to facilitate the development of the model for other regions. It should not be expected for Manbij to undergo complete Turkish military control, as the Turkish military will be operating in other regions where the Operation Olive Branch and the Operation Euphrates Shield took place.

The implementation of the military aspect of the agreement brings the third phase into question, in which the U.S. and Turkey will establish a local governance model composed of local security forces and effectively local municipal services. Turkey has a valuable experience regarding the formation of an effective local governance model, including police forces and delivering basic services to local people. However, Manbij will be different, since the U.S., and perhaps France will be the partners in implementing the local governance model in Manbij.

The uniqueness of Turkey’s experience is emanating from its decision-making process without taking any third party’s interference into consideration. The local training forces in Turkey, delivering humanitarian aid to liberated regions in Syria and forming local governance processes are in full control of the Turkish authorities. However, the Manbij model will be implemented under the joint control and protection of the U.S. and Turkey after the withdrawal of YPG forces from the region within a specific period.

Turkey has many concerns regarding the formation of a security structure and local governance, in which any PKK-affiliated persons or groups might be part of the process. For instance, how the municipal structure will be determined by the ethnic distribution of the population since the PKK has changed the very nature of the demographic balance in Manbij is a vital issue. Therefore, implementing the third phase of the agreement will take time while both sides will be implementing the first two steps.

The most important aspect of the Manbij agreement depends on how the two countries will overcome disagreements between the two capitals. Both the U.S. and Turkey will not decide about the future of their relationship via the Manbij agreement. However, the agreement will open a new page for the future.


Dr. Yeşiltaş is a Professor of International Relations at Sakarya University. He is currently working on the following research projects: The Rise of Kurdish Geopolitical Space, Border Security in the Middle East and The New Regional Security Project in the Middle East (NRSP).