Turkey is ready to take over security in Manbij, a town in northeastern Syria held by Kurdish forces where four US personnel died in a bombing last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his US counterpart in a phone call.
A statement by the Turkish presidency said Erdogan on Sunday told Donald Trump the attack in Manbij was a provocation by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group to influence the expected US troop withdrawal from the war-torn country.
In a surprise move, Trump had announced on December 19 that the United States would be pulling its 2,000 soldiers out of northeastern Syria quickly, declaring that ISIL had been defeated – a view not shared by many security experts and policy advisers.
US officials have since been walking back Trump’s timeline, suggesting that conditions for any such withdrawal would be finishing off ISIL and Turkey assuring the safety of Kurdish troops allied with the US.
Sunday’s call came almost a week after another phone conversation between the two leaders in which they discussed the situation in northeastern Syria amid rising tensions over the fate of Kurdish fighters in the war-torn country.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told Al Jazeera that Erdogan did not want to talk to the security and foreign policy teams around Trump, as these officials want US troops to stay in Syria.
“Erdogan knows that Trump wants to leave Syria, so he only wants to talk to the US president, not his team,” Landis told Al Jazeera.
“People around Trump believe troops should stay in northern Syria to continue with the fight against ISIL, roll back Iran, and protect the Kurdish fighters there,” he added.
‘Bone of contention’
Located near the border with Turkey, Manbij has emerged as a focal point of tensions after Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces – whose presence has effectively deterred Ankara from attacking Kurdish fighters, Washington’s main ground ally in its fight against ISIL.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia allied to the Washington-backed Kurdish YPG, captured the town from ISIL in 2016. Ankara views the YPG as a “terrorist” group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has for decades waged a separatist armed campaign in Turkey.
Al Jazeera’s Osama bin Javaid, reporting from the Turkish-Syrian border, said the latest phone call was “essentially a continuation of the strategy to try and bridge the divide that was created” following a war of words between the two NATO allies over Washington’s backing of the Kurdish fighters and what would happen in the region after the US pullout.
“Manbij is a bone of contention between the two countries because the Turkish troops want to take charge of that area and the US-backed Kurdish fighters do not want to give control to the Turkish government,” he added.
“These Kurdish fighters have been inching towards the Syrian government in case of a vacuum created when the US forces pull out – a result that neither Turkey nor the US wants.”
Last month, the YPG invited Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces into the area, hoping to prevent a Turkish assault.
Landis said none of the scenarios resulting from a US withdrawal is attractive to Washington.
“They don’t want Turkey invading, and they don’t want the Syrian regime and Russia to fill the vacuum. So America’s going to be stuck there forever, and that’s the dilemma,” he said.
War of words
In its description of the call, the White House made no mention of Erdogan’s offer to take over security in Manbij but said the two men agreed to keep pursuing a negotiated settlement for northeastern Syria that meets both nations’ security needs.
“President Trump underscored the importance of defeating terrorist elements that remain in Syria,” Sarah Sanders, the White House spokeswoman, said in a description of the phone conversation.
“The two leaders agreed to continue to pursue a negotiated solution for northeast Syria that achieves our respective security concerns. They also discussed their mutual interest in expanding the trade relationship between the United States and Turkey,” Sanders added.
Trump has previously warned Turkey not to attack the Kurdish fighters in Syria and appeared to threaten Turkey’s economy if it did.
In response, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said “we are not scared of and will not be intimidated by any threats,” adding that “economic threats against Turkey will get nowhere.”
Erdogan calls Trump
In its statement about the latest call, the Turkish presidency also said the two leaders had agreed to accelerate discussions between their chiefs of staff about a safe zone in northeastern Syria.
Last week, Trump suggested creating a safe zone, without elaborating. The SDF said on Wednesday it was ready to help create a safe zone amid Kurdish fears the US withdrawal would give Ankara the opportunity to mount a new offensive.
Turkey has said the US administration has been incoherent about the withdrawal process since Trump’s December 19 announcement.
“Trump wants to bring the troops home and not get involved for the long-term in Syria,” said Landis. “The president says, ‘the hell with this’, let Russia and Syria and Iran deal with ISIS and finish it off. They want to do it, let them pay for it’.”