Turkey claims Syria role as militants target US forces in second attack in days

Erdogan’s pledge to return Kurdish-controlled Manbij to its real “owners” came on the same day that US forces in Syria became the target of a second militant attack in less than a week.

ISTANBUL – Turkey says it is ready to take control in parts of northern Syria, amid increasing attacks on US forces before their planned withdrawal from the country.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pledge to return the northern Syrian city of Manbij, currently under Kurdish control, to its real “owners” came on the same day that US forces in Syria became the target of a second militant attack in less than a week.

Following a suspected Islamic State attack in the city of Manbij on Jan 16 that killed four Americans, five Kurdish fighters and ten civilians, a suicide blast on Jan 21 against a convoy of American soldiers and their Kurdish partners near Hasakeh killed five members of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Two US soldiers were wounded, it added.

Residents say there has been a spike in recent months in attacks on SDF checkpoints in the swathe of territory it controls in northeast Syria on the border with Turkey, down the Euphrates River towards the border with Iraq, according to Reuters.

It remains unclear whether the violence against US troops will speed up or slow down the withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 soldiers from Syria, or if the attacks will have any impact on the timeframe at all. Erdogan told his US counterpart Donald Trump in a phone call on Jan 20 that the Manbij attack had been a “provocation meant to affect the U.S. decision to withdraw from Syria,” according to the Turkish presidential office.

Turkey has welcomed Trump’s withdrawal plans, hoping that the exit of the US soldiers will give Ankara a chance to move against the Kurdish YPG militia, a US partner in the fight against the Islamic State that is seen as a terrorist organisation by Turkey.

In the Jan 20 phone call, Erdogan told Trump that Turkey was “ready to take over the security” in Manbij “without losing time.” The YPG drove out the Islamic State from Manbij with US help in 2016 and has ruled the city ever since. Ankara accuses the YPG of suppressing Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens alike.

Turkey has been calling for the YPG-dominated SDF to leave Manbij, which lies just 30 kilometers south of the Turkish border. Pro-Turkish Syrian forces are waiting north of Manbij for the order to attack the city, while thousands of Turkish soldiers have been massed on the border.

“We will take over security in Manbij and return it to its owners,” Erdogan said in a speech on Jan 21. He also reiterated his proposal for a 30 kilometer buffer zone in north-eastern Syria that would push the YPG back from the Turkish border, stressing that Ankara was advocating a zone under “control of Turkey”. Erdogan’s definition of a buffer zone runs counter to an YPG proposal for an UN-controlled area along the Turkish border.

The Turkish leader was underlining his country’s role in Syria ahead of a summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Jan 23. In his speech, Erdogan praised last year’s Russian-Turkish agreement that prevented a Syrian government assault on the north-western province of Idlib.

Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.

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