What will Turkey do after it captures Manbij?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last week told his parliamentary party: “If the terrorists are not removed from Manbij within a few weeks, then our patience will end. When our national security is threatened, we are not going to ask anyone’s permission, we will not give account to anyone. All tribes in the region ask us when we will be coming”. 

There are similarities between this and Erdoğan’s previous statements on Syria, but there are signs that this time the United States is also taking steps to meet part of Turkey’s expectations.

Since June last year, experts from Turkey and the United States have been working on a roadmap that will include every detail of the withdrawal from Manbij of fighters of the People’s Protection Unit (YPG). The beginning of December last year was given as a deadline for the departure of the last YPG fighter from the city, but it has yet to be completed. 

There are indications that Turkey’s patience is wearing thin. But there are also several challenges that Turkey may face if it feels compelled to carry out a military operation to capture the city: 

First is the military challenge: If the United States withdraws from Syria without securing the YPG’s exit from Manbij, it is not yet known whether the Syrian Kurdish force will choose to resist the Turkish military operation. The Turkish army, the second biggest army in NATO, cannot be expected to be defeated by a few tens of thousands of Kurdish fighters no matter how well-trained, well-equipped and dedicated they may be. But this does not mean that both sides will not suffer casualties. The collateral damage of a military clash on the civilian population and the destruction of the civilian infrastructure is also likely to be great. 

The United States has finally given a definitive date – the end of April this year - for the complete withdrawal of its troops from Syria. The question remains how Turkey will deal with YPG fighters in light of pledges by top U.S. decision-makers to protect the Kurds from the Turkish army. President Donald Trump said the United States “will devastate Turkey’s economy if they attack Kurds”. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would not let the Turks slaughter the Kurds.

Russia’s attitude is not yet very clear. Turkey will probably negotiate with Russia before engaging in such an operation. Without Russia’s acquiescence, Turkey may not attempt such an offensive.

The international community may also oppose Turkey’s operation and make its task difficult.

The post-operation phase is yet another challenge. If Turkey’s ultimate aim is to oust the YPG from the city, it must have a reliable list of wanted persons. Their number must be reaching several thousands, if not the tens of thousands. To identify and arrest that many ‘terrorists’ would be a gigantic task.  

In March 2017, a new administration was declared in Manbij. Thirteen committees were elected corresponding to ministries. They are composed of 71 Arabs, 43 Kurds, 10 Turkmens, eight Circassians, one Armenian and a Chechen. This probably corresponds to the ethnic composition of the city. But Turkey says that many people were forced to leave the city. If this has actually happened, Turkey will have to show what the pre-war composition of the city was.

These are some of the questions that military strategists and political decision-makers in Turkey must have thoroughly studied. One cannot think that the army of a NATO country could engage in such an adventure without meticulously calculating all the implications. 

The same question is valid for the political decision-makers. Turks praise themselves for their state-building skills. These skills must be present at every level of the decision-making hierarchy. 

Depending on the answer to these questions, Syria may be pushed into further chaos at a time when hopes were rising that the conflict would subside.

If a risk is taken and it fails, the persons who took the risk will have to suffer the consequences. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.