Turkey backtracks on U.S. agreement on Manbij

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has backtracked on saying Turkey had reached an agreement with the United States over the Kurdish-controlled Syrian town of Manbij, a potential flashpoint between Washington and Ankara after Turkish leaders threatened to capture the area where U.S. troops are training Kurdish fighters.

"We did not say we had an agreement with the U.S. We said we have reached an understanding," Çavuşoğlu said after a telephone conversation with outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

On Wednesday speech, President Erdogan sounded furious over Manbij city again and said the discussions should not be about when they [the U.S. forces] leave Manbij but "they never been there in the first place." Erdogan, in the same speech also asked "Mr. Trump to teach the U.S. spokespeople their place" due their confused statements with regards to Turkey.

Turkish officials have for a number of days been outspoken about an agreement over Manbij. Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın said on Tuesday: "We have reached a general agreement. We are now waiting for this agreement to be put into effect. If it is put into effect, we will not face off against the U.S."

Çavuşoğlu also said last week that Turkish and U.S. officials had reached an agreement on Manbij. He said Turkish and U.S. troops would provide security in Manbij after the withdrawal of the mainly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces from Manbij and both countries would oversee the withdrawal process.

Manbij fell to Islamic State early in 2014 and became a hub for the group's foreign fighters until Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance mostly made up of YPG fighters, ousted the extreme jihadists from the city on August 2016 with the help of U.S.-led coalition air strikes.

U.S. forces have relied on the SDF ground forces to largely defeat ISIS and drive it out of most of northern and eastern Syria.

After the YPG captured Manbij from ISIS, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said it was an Arab city that should be cleared of the YPG and its allies. Turkey says the YPG is a terrorist organisation that is an extension of outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The United States and its allies do not list the YPG as a terrorist organisation. 

Turkish-led forces captured the northwest Syrian city of Afrin from the YPG on Sunday after a two-month offensive, but unlike in Manbij, there were no U.S. forces present in Afrin.

Turkish officials say the Obama administration promised them that once the fight against ISIS was over, the United States would make the YPG leave Manbij and withdraw east of the River Euphrates. Tillerson also mentioned that U.S. promise during a visit to Ankara.

At the end of the first meeting of joint U.S.-Turkish working groups set up after Tillerson's visit to Ankara in February, the Turkish side declared both sides had reached an agreement over Manbij. The U.S. side however never confirmed these reports and when asked, U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert last week said there was no agreement.

Asked again on Tuesday to respond to Kalın’s assertion that there had indeed been an agreement over Manbij, Nauert said: “Well, that’s funny, because no agreement has been reached.”

A day later, after speaking to Tillerson, Çavuşoğlu said there no was no deal on Manbij, only an understanding. "The studies are ongoing. I thanked him (Tillerson) for his partnership during this process. It was a personal conversation. We wished to get a result following the establishment of the working groups and understanding."

President Donald Trump on Tuesday formally nominated CIA director Mike Pompeo to lead the State Department. Dates for Pompeo's Senate confirmation hearings have yet to set.