Turkey’s Manbij move ‘could have impact’ on Raqqa campaign: US commander

SDF forces receive training by US instructors in Sanaa, Syria, February 2017

US Central Command head, General Joseph Votel, has suggested an attack by Turkey and FSA groups on northern Syrian city Manbij could have a negative impact on the campaign to capture IS stronghold Raqqa.

In an interview with Foreign Policy magazine published Tuesday, the military chief, who recently visited the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria, said such a move could “have an impact on the coalition campaign plan.”

Votel added: “we are fully engaged with our Turkish partners” to try and work out a solution in northern Syria which avoids US and Turkish-backed forces fighting one another.

Officials of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a major component of the SDF, reportedly told the US general they would end the operation to capture Raqqa from IS and revert their attention to Manbij, if Turkish and Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces attack the northern Syrian city.

Speaking to Kom News on Wednesday, a YPG source said a possible attack on Manbij by Turkish-FSA forces would have a direct impact on the Raqqa operation.

“The Manbij Military Council already declared that in the case of an attack they would seek support from the SDF and YPG. If Turkish and FSA forces attack Manbij it will be with the aim of preventing the Raqqa operation. If they do this we will heed the Manbij Military Council’s call for assistance. We will view this [attack on Manbij] as support for Daesh [IS] as it will directly impact the current Wrath of Euphrates operation,” the source said, on condition of anonymity.

The Kurdish source also added that there weren’t any YPG fighters in Manbij – a claim by Ankara – and that Turkey wanted to prevent the autonomous administration and Kurdish aspirations in the region.

Joseph Votel also commented on the issue of safe zones, which the Trump administration has said it favours, and stated it was “a viable concept” in “areas that have already been secured where we already have humanitarian and stabilisation activities ongoing.”

The idea of safe zones has been welcomed by officials of the autonomous region (Rojava) in northern Syria. Syrian National Council Co-chair Ilham Ehmed, who recently visited Washington, said the proposed safe zones would be set up in areas controlled by the SDF and Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)

Turkey had been a strong proponent of safe zones on its border until the expansion of areas controlled by Kurdish and SDF forces. Speaking to Sputnik recently Turkey’s Presidential Adviser Ilnur Cevik said they were against safe zones in Kurdish controlled areas, “Because in the past in Iraq we agreed to no fly zone and what happened [was that] PKK went in there, because… this zone was safe and nobody would touch it, the PKK flourished in those areas. We don’t want another PKK incident.”

Turkey says it supports safe zones only in the area it controls with Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups between Manbij and Afrin cantons, however the US has been unwilling in bringing this on its agenda.

The general also said there were US military civil affairs teams on the ground working on an assessment of what more might be needed on the humanitarian front, but stressed that there needs to be a “broader international effort” to tackle the problem.

Votel reiterated that the US was only providing arms to the Syrian Arab fighters in the SDF and training to both Kurdish and Arab elements in the multi-ethnic force.

The Turkish-backed FSA on Tuesday said it would continue attacking the SDF in Manbij.

(Reporting and writing by Mehmet Aksoy/Kom News)