Turkey effusive, U.S. evasive on Manbij deal

Turkish officials and the state-run Anadolu news agency have announced that a deal has been agreed with the United States to clear Kurdish militants from the Manbij, a northern Syrian area where U.S. special forces are stationed alongside allied Kurdish groups.

Statements from the Turkish side say that the Kurdish groups, considered a threat by Turkey, could be forced to completely leave the northern Syrian area by the end of the summer.

However, U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert contradicted the claims during a press briefing on Tuesday.

“Here’s what I can tell you. We don’t have any agreements yet with the Government of Turkey… We’re continuing to have ongoing conversations regarding Syria and other issues of mutual concern,’’ Nauert said.

The two NATO allies have reached a dangerous impasse in Syria, where the United States has been counting on forces from the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, to combat the extremist jihadist Islamic State (ISIS).

Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organisation due to its links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has been in armed struggle with Turkish armed forces for Kurdish self-rule since the mid-1980s, and in January launched a military operation to clear YPG forces from Afrin, a northwest Syrian town close to Manbij.

As Turkish leaders threatened to extend the operation to Manbij, an important centre for the around 2,000 U.S. special forces stationed in Syria, former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson rushed to Ankara for crisis talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.

The U.S.-Turkish working groups arranged during Tillerson’s visit have agreed on a plan to expel the YPG and its affiliates from the Manbij area in one month, the Turkish foreign ministry said on Friday.

The announcement has been accompanied by buoyant statements from Çavuşoğlu, who said on Wednesday the Syrian-Kurdish forces would be expelled by the end of the summer.

The operation to remove the Kurdish groups would begin after Jun. 4, when Tillerson’s successor Mike Pompeo is due to meet Çavuşoğlu, and would commence with Washington setting a date for the armed groups to leave the area, said Anadolu Agency on Wednesday in a report quoting anonymous sources “familiar to the (U.S.-Turkey) meetings.”

The second phase would see Turkish and U.S. military intelligence inspect the area after 45 days, and then set up a local administration in the area in the third phase, Anadolu reported.

Anadolu’s piece said the main agenda of the agreement had been decided, though it said some details could be altered during Pompeo and Çavuşoğlu’s meeting on Jun. 4.

Nauert’s statement on Tuesday, however, has left the agreement looking far less of a safe bet, and Washington’s refusal to acknowledge to acknowledge the deal fits the view of many analysts, who see it as unlikely that the United States will give up a key ally against ISIS and Iranian influence in Syria.