Turkey's valuable leverage to disrupt the People's Protection Units (YPG)-U.S. military alliance during the upcoming Raqqa operation has been tossed away as the Russian military and U.S. Special Forces moved last week in Syria's Manbij to prevent Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces from attacking the city.
U.S. officials strongly deny any cooperation with the Russians, but every sign at our disposal tells us that they tacitly coordinated their deployments in the area, or at least quietly enjoyed Russian support for the Pentagon's end.
U.S. Central Command was obviously aware of the Russian deployment in the area, and there is no doubt that, one way or another, Manbij Military Council, a local component of the YPG-led and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), did inform the coalition that they were receding from some territory in the west. CENTCOM deployed up to 100 member of its elite forces, and at least eight armored vehicles with American flags in the west of the city, an obvious attempt to deter any Turkish attempt against Manbij.
As Hassan Hassan rightly pointed out in his recent piece, American officials are no longer interested in the political contexts of the fight against Daesh, and they don't care about Iranian proxies or the Assad regime, instead only concentrating on the mission they intend to accomplish.
Russians, on the other hand, prefer the SDF's control in Raqqa over a Turkish-backed takeover, since it would strengthen the Free Syrian Army (FSA). To embolden their perception, the YPG's political wing the Democratic Union Party's (PYD) representative to Moscow declared last week that they have never opposed, or challenged Assad's authority over the country.
Now Turkey does not have many quick ways to trouble the U.S. partnership with the YPG, the Turkey-based PKK terror group's armed Syrian wing. The Americans are now speculating on whether or not they prefer to give heavy weapons to the YPG, in order to calm their Turkish partners. But everyone knows that they will indirectly arm the militant group anyway.
The top commander of the Turkish military, Gen. Hulusi Akar and his American counterpart Gen. Joseph Dunford met this week in Antalya to de-conflict their military operations in the country. "They did discuss Manbij, but only in the context of the larger fight against ISIS [Daesh] in the region. They also discussed other terrorist organizations that are active including the PKK, al-Qaida and al-Nusra Front as part of the regional security picture," Mark Toner, U.S. State Department acting spokesperson said on Wednesday, using an alternative acronym for Daesh.
Toner also made clear that the U.S. government still denies the obvious links between the PKK and YPG, but reiterated the notion that they are mindful about Turkey's concerns. Basically he repeated the Obama administration's view on this issue, disillusioning Ankara.
The White House is yet to make its ultimate decision on the Raqqa operation but all the signs suggest, including recently exposed U.S. artillery and aircraft deployment to Syria, that it will pursue an option including the YPG forces.
This is why Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım told reporters that Turkey would prefer the Assad regime control Manbij. He also said that Turkey, Russia and the U.S. should establish a mechanism to remove the YPG from this area. Ankara knows that its possible risky moves can easily escalate in Manbij and looking for some creative ways to meet its immediate national security interests.
My understanding is that Turkey will be forced to make a clear choice, as American officials asked repeatedly, "Would Ankara prefer American or Russian influence over the YPG/SDF?" Clearly, due to institutional relations, Ankara is eager to pick the U.S. over Russia when it comes the YPG. If this happens, what former Obama administration officials, such as Anthony Blinken, or other Washington-based Turkey experts suggested will occur; the U.S. will try to broker a reconciliation process between the YPG, eventually the PKK, and Turkey.
I know there are a lot of conditionals above, but to prove everyone wrong, Ankara has to be more creative than ever.