Last month President Erdogan was infuriated when the Americans announced they were forming a 30,000-strong permanent border protection force in Kurd-held areas as a long-term way to fight ISIS, using the Syrian Democratic Forces. On Jan. 20, the Turks responded with an offensive against Afrin, threatening to continue on straight across northern Syria. “The U.S. says that they have cleared Daesh from Syria,” Mr. Erdogan said Tuesday. “Why are you still here?”
The Americans say the fight against ISIS is far from over in Syria, even though the group has been expelled from all urban areas, like Manbij, which the Americans and their Syrian allies cleared in the summer of 2016.
The Americans have vowed to stay in Manbij and support their allies. But the American forces in Manbij number only a few hundred out of a total of 2,000 in all of northern Syria, mostly Special Operations troops. The Turks and their allied militias, the Free Syrian Army fighting around Afrin, are estimated at 20,000 in all. Both Turks and Americans have substantial air forces in the area.
Even if the Turks do not carry out their threats, the fight in Afrin has indirectly hurt the American-led fight against ISIS. As the Syrian Democratic Forces shift fighters to the battle in Afrin, they have weakened the ISIS campaign far to the east.
“It’s illogical that while we are fighting ISIS, the enemy of the world, over there, the Turks attack us in Afrin,” said Shervan Derwish, the spokesman for the Manbij Military Council. “Our fight against ISIS has had to be minimized as we reduce our power there to defend Afrin.”
The military council, supported by American Special Operations troops and air power, defeated ISIS in Manbij in August 2016, and then established a local government administration that has controlled the area since. “Before they got here, this was a highway for Islamist terrorist fighters into the physical caliphate from all over the world,” General Jarrard said.
The council remains an important part of the effort to fight ISIS, with many of its fighters alongside American forces in the eastern part of the country, where the last pockets of ISIS control remain.
American policymakers worry that the Afrin conflict, and the threat against Manbij, will degrade their Kurdish and Arab allies.
Continue reading the main story