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Manbij now a symbol of conflicting agendas on Syria

Nowhere is the conflict in agendas over Syria more evident than in the northern city of Manbij. In recent days, it has become a magnet for a multinational military build-up that includes major players, most at odds with each other.

The city of 70,000 citizens, 130 km northwest of Raqqa, is under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its predominantly Kurdish militia the YPG. It was wrestled from Daesh last August, and is now perceived as the fulcrum for a final push toward Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the militant group.

With Turkish-backed Syrian rebels closing in on the western outskirts of Manbij, the US has deployed an additional 200 Marines to act as a buffer. This prompted Russia to place its own troops at a nearby base along with Syrian government forces.

Until a few days ago, the prospect of clashes between the YPG and Turkish forces was high. But with the latest US intervention, it now looks like Ankara’s unilateral push into Syria’s north has reached its limit. Both Washington and Moscow decided that the Turkish incursion must stop here, upsetting Ankara’s plans to oust the YPG from Manbij and take the lead in the advance toward Raqqa.

More interestingly, the SDF handed over at least five villages south of Manbij to Syrian government forces. The message to Ankara is clear: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s adventure in Syria, where he was hoping to establish a de facto safe zone almost half the size of Lebanon, was over.

It appears the administration of US President Donald Trump has made up its mind over who will lead the race to Raqqa. By deploying a total of 700 Marines with access to armor and artillery, Washington is giving the Kurdish militia the green light to prepare for the final push toward Daesh’s capital.

Despite the Russian-Turkish entente on Syria, which launched the Astana talks following a nationwide cease-fire agreement last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin is refusing to bow to Erdogan’s demands in northern Syria. For Moscow, the coming weeks will be crucial in deciding the direction of the Syrian political process.

Putin knows that despite the hype over how difficult the battle for Raqqa will be, in reality Daesh as an organization has been mortally wounded and is on the verge of losing Mosul in Iraq. Most of its key leaders have either been killed or dispersed into the desert. Those who remain in Raqqa are demoralized, and while they will put up a fight, the outcome of the battle is assured.

Turkey will be worried that the expected SDF/YPG victory in Manbij will exact a price in any future settlement, in the form of an autonomous enclave that is too close to home.

Osama Al-Sharif

For Trump, conquering Raqqa represents a decisive personal victory over Daesh, one that he promised as a candidate and president. The SDF/YPG have proven to be a reliable partner, and their success will not upset the political process on the future of Syria. The recent US deployment is testimony to a shift in Washington’s strategy, which entails an active role in deciding the future of Syria.

No wonder the latest intervention is viewed with suspicion by both Damascus and Tehran. Syrian President Bashar Assad has described all uninvited forces in Syria, including the US, as “invaders.” Iran has claimed that the US intervention in Syria will inflame the region. A much larger US build-up is also taking place in Iraq.

The situation in Manbij underlines the complexity of the Syrian conflict, and the latest military developments will brim over onto the political talks in both Astana and Geneva. Turkey will be worried that the expected SDF/YPG victory will exact a price in any future settlement, in the form of an autonomous enclave that is too close to home.

Russia has submitted a draft constitution to Damascus that gives Syrian Kurds more administrative freedom within a decentralized system of government. Erdogan’s visit to Moscow last week must have centered on ways to stem Syrian-Kurdish political ambitions, and on Turkey’s desire to play a part in the liberation of Raqqa.

Relations between Washington and Ankara remain in flux as Erdogan continues to wait for a positive overture from the Trump administration, especially over the demand for the extradition of cleric Fethullah Gulen. For Iran, the US presence in Syria is a threat to its regional agenda. Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu warned of Iran’s growing role in Syria during his meeting with Putin in Moscow last week.

The Kurdish push for Raqqa is slated to start in the coming few weeks, with aggressive US backing. It is not clear if Washington and Moscow are coordinating their moves or just reacting to what the other side is doing. One thing is clear: No one knows what the endgame in Syria will look like following the defeat of Daesh.

The political path is more challenging than ever, and with major powers now physically entrenched in parts of Syria — and in the case of Manbij, within striking distance from each other — arriving at an agreement that will satisfy all looks impossible.

• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.