A Visit to the Tense Front Line Between Kurds and Turks

A fighter with the Manbij Military Council at a front-line position on the outskirts of Manbij, Syria.

MANBIJ, Syria — The front line between rival American-backed and Turkish-backed militias in northern Syria, just eight miles north of Manbij, snakes over mostly barren hillsides and through newly planted olive orchards. It consists of many miles of bulldozed earthworks, with fortified bunkers every few hundred yards.

This is the line, along the Sajur River valley, that Turkish forces would have to cross if ordered to carry out President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threat to extinguish Kurdish control in northern Syria, and it is also the line the American military has said it will not give up to Turkey, its NATO ally.

The possibility of a military conflict between two NATO allies is unprecedented but, after years of deteriorating relations between Turkey and the United States, not unthinkable. If Turkey were to attack Kurdish forces and their allies in Manbij, and the American military intervened, the strains on the NATO alliance would be extreme.

The local front-line commander for the Manbij Military Council, Shiar Gherde, is keenly aware of the tenuous nature of his position, but his worries are not tactical. “This is a political conflict now, more than a military one,” Mr. Gherde said during a tour on Wednesday of his fighters’ fortifications. And politically, as he saw it, the Americans are on their side.

The Manbij Military Council is aligned with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, and while the majority of the council’s fighters are Arabs, most of its field commanders, like Mr. Gherde, are Kurds.

Mr. Gherde took out his Samsung tablet to consult a military map online, thanks to a strong signal from his enemies’ Turkcell network. Like most Kurdish commanders, Mr. Gherde has no formal rank. He pointed to the northeast at a hillock surrounded by whitish earthworks, which he said was the local Turkish base, then consulted his map to work out the distance: 3.5 kilometers, or about two miles. Clearly visible, the base was out of rifle range, and even out of range of their big .50-caliber machine guns nestled just behind the berms.

During the day it was mostly quiet, Mr. Gherde said, save for a few gunshots ringing out, as happened three times during our two-hour-long visit. “It’s a front line, so it’s always risky,” he said. But on Monday and Tuesday nights this week, he said, this particular position took fire from heavy machine guns, though no one was hurt.

The Turks, he said, no longer use artillery to strike their positions, because it leaves craters, and the American coalition troops based nearby arrive quickly to document such breaches of the cease-fire negotiated by the American and Turkish militaries, a cease-fire that has mostly held here for more than a year.

“The Americans come here a lot,” he said of the coalition troops. “We know we can count on them, because they’ve promised us.”

The sound of an unseen drone caused everyone to look up. “American,” Mr. Gherde said. He took a call on his walkie-talkie and then reported that a Turkish drone was on its way, too, and soon a second set of buzzing engines, also unseen, could be heard. “They could call in artillery,” he warned, advising everyone to leave, as his fighters calmly ducked into bunkers.

Manbij has been particularly on edge in the past 12 days, as Turkish forces have pressed an air and ground offensive against the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in Afrin, 80 miles to the west. Afrin is one of three northern provinces that are majority Kurdish and loosely aligned in what the Kurds call the Rojava self-administration area.

Mr. Erdogan, appearing on television in combat fatigues at one point, vowed to clear Kurdish forces from all of northern Syria. “Step by step we will clean our entire border,” he said Sunday. There are no Americans in Afrin, but from Manbij eastward, American forces are fighting alongside the Kurds against the Islamic State. The Americans are also actively training Syrian rebel units, including the Manbij Military Council in this area.



Is Turkey’s Syria Offensive Endangering U.S. Troops?

Turkey's president has said he wants his forces to take the Syrian city of Manbij. The problem is that the United States is already there.

Two senior U.S. generals show up at a small city in northern Syria — Manbij. Why were they there? And why now? The answer begins last March when images emerged showing U.S. troops flying the American flag on patrol there. It was unusual to see such a public display of American boots on the ground in Syria. And that was the point. The Pentagon deployed these troops to keep the peace between nearby Turkish troops and Kurdish fighters. “You know we are very clear about our presence there. These patrols are overt.” Both are sworn enemies of each other. But both are also U.S. allies. Turkey is a NATO ally, and the Kurds have been key to helping the U.S. defeat Islamic State. So to keep the peace in the city an American show of force was necessary. Now the common enemy for everyone had been Islamic State. But with that fight winding down, old rivalries have again taken center stage. The Turks consider Kurds terrorists and say they are protecting their own border. And so Turkey has launched an offensive against the Kurds just a three hour drive from Manbij in Afrin. Turkey’s president has said Manbij is his Army’s next objective after Afrin. The problem is American troops are still there. Here’s what we know about their presence. They’ve been advising Kurds there since 2016 and still continue overt patrols in the city. Plus there’s a U.S. air base that’s just a 45-minute drive away. At times, U.S. patrols near the city have also received fire from Turkish-backed rebels. “We identified this to our Turkish allies, and they have taken appropriate measures to get that under control.” These rebels operate in territory just north of the city. It’s part of a buffer zone Turkey already controls along its border with Syria. The U.S. has said it has no intention of leaving, that it will support the Kurds there despite Turkey’s rhetoric. And that’s what this visit by the generals tried to show. But if the offensive turns towards Manbij, U.S. troops could find themselves stuck between two bitter enemies putting American lives at risk. One of the generals said that if U.S. forces were attacked, they would stay and fight.

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Turkey's president has said he wants his forces to take the Syrian city of Manbij. The problem is that the United States is already there.CreditCredit...Susannah George/Associated Press

The Afrin offensive and the Turkish president’s bellicose stance alarmed people here, and prompted international criticism, including from President Trump and the American government. The offensive also raised concerns that the cease-fire around Manbij might break down, and many Kurds worried that the Americans would abandon their allies, particularly since the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has been defeated in the Manbij area.

Those concerns were largely dispelled, however, after the commander of the United States Central Command, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, said in an interview on Sunday with CNN that the United States would not withdraw from Manbij.

A spokesman for the American coalition, Col. Ryan Dillon, confirmed General Votel’s remarks. “We’re going to continue to do the mission that we have been doing in that area for more than a year now,” Colonel Dillon said of Manbij. “We have no intention to stop.” He said that American patrols were active throughout the area, and that American troops were monitoring the cease-fire. Training for the Manbij Military Council and Syrian Democratic Forces would continue, he said, as well as efforts to facilitate their role in the fight against ISIS in other parts of Syria.

The American military did not grant permission to visit its small base in Manbij, located about 10 miles west of the city, but small convoys of Humvees and armored vehicles were a frequent sight on the highways in the area. The base appeared much smaller than the other two main bases for American troops in northern Syria. It is unclear how many American soldiers are stationed there, but the Pentagon in December confirmed that about 2,000 American troops were in Syria fighting the Islamic State. (Colonel Dillon declined to say how many of those troops were in Manbij.)

Manbij is a predominantly Arab city in northern Syria, which the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces retook from ISIS. Its current population of 300,000 includes about 120,000 refugees from other parts of Syria, again mostly Arabs, according to the head of the civil administration in Manbij, Ibrahim Kaftan, an Arab himself.

People in Manbij were initially alarmed because Manbij is mostly flat terrain, unlike the more rugged area around Afrin. “The first week of the Turkish offensive, there was concern about it, but soon it was like the shepherd boy who cried wolf,” Mr. Kaftan said.

Turkish forces have still not succeeded in taking the city of Afrin, even after heavy aerial bombardments, which also encouraged people in Manbij, he said. “We trust our friends in the coalition,” he said. “Of course they’re going to protect us. Now our allies are committing to work with us, and Erdogan can’t cross that line.” He said American coalition officers had assured Manbij authorities that they would not abandon them.

Colonel Dillon said that contacts with the Turkish military and government continued at all levels and had not been hampered by reaction to the Afrin offensive. There are Turkish officers in the coalition’s headquarters in Kuwait, for instance. “We have dialogue on a daily basis in our headquarters, and we maintain dialogue with liaison officers in Ankara,” Turkey’s capital, “and there are other leader engagements that go all the way up to President Trump and President Erdogan,” he said.

Last week, in fact, Mr. Trump and Mr. Erdogan spoke by telephone about Syria, although the two governments had dramatically different readouts of their conversation. A White House official said Mr. Trump asked Turkey to “de-escalate, limit its military actions and avoid civilian casualties” in Afrin, while Turkey claimed that Mr. Trump did not discuss the violence in Afrin.

Kurdish leaders have been upset that the Americans have not done more to restrain Turkey in Afrin. “In Manbij we and the coalition worked together and took ISIS out,” said Shervan Derwish, the spokesman for the Manbij Military Council. “But now they are attacking us in Afrin and we have to reduce our forces against ISIS to defend Afrin.”

Mr. Gherde, on the front line near the Sajur River, is now 32 and has been at war since 2011. He is still single. “There’s no time for getting married now,” he said. On the conflict, he took the long view. “This war will still be going on in 2022,” he said. “And the Americans will still be here.”

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