No specific timeframe for YPG Manbij exit, says U.S.

The United States is committed to ensuring the exit of Kurdish forces from the area of northern Syria west of the Euphrates river, and will work with Turkey to do so as soon as possible, senior officials from the U.S. State Department have said.

The officials’ statements to press officials seemed rather vague compared to the precisely described plans announced by Turkish officials, however, particularly on the time frame for the withdrawal.

The two unnamed U.S. State Department officials held the press briefing via teleconference on Tuesday, covering in depth the U.S.-Turkish Working Group on Syria and the agreement announced yesterday by the two countries’ top diplomats on a “roadmap” to remove Kurdish militias from the region.

The presence of forces from the predominantly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) near its border is viewed as a grave security threat by Turkey, which fears the group may launch cross-border attacks or encourage armed struggle for self-rule among Kurds within Turkey.

Ankara launched a military operation against the YPG in the northwest Syrian enclave of Afrin in January, and has pushed the United States to force the YPG and affiliated forces out of the nearby area of Manbij, where U.S. special forces troops are stationed.

Monday’s announcement of a U.S.-Turkish roadmap has been presented as a victory by Turkish officials, who have said that, per the agreement, the YPG will be out of Manbij within six months.

State Department officials, however, have remained elusive on this point, saying that, while the United States will act as quickly as possible and the timeframe given by Turks is “in the ballpark,” they could not set a specific timeframe for the withdrawal.

“It’s important to note that this is a broad political framework, and the implementation of this will require details that remain to be negotiated – and as I said, they will need to be mutually agreeable – and that the implementation will be timed based on developments on the ground,” one of the officials said.

The officials did not specify what those developments could be, but were eager to emphasise that the roadmap agreed with Turkey was intrinsically linked to the fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS, a struggle that brought the U.S. and Kurdish forces together in the first place.

The Manbij roadmap is part of a “post-ISIS” phase, said one official, before describing how both the Turkish and Kurdish forces had been involved in recapturing adjacent areas in northern Syria from the extremist jihadist group.

Tellingly, the fight against ISIS has been absent from Turkish official statements on Manbij. The U.S. side, however, frames the roadmap precisely in the scope of that conflict, arguing that the “broad political arrangement” it constitutes will reduce tensions in the area and allow a return to focus on the counter-ISIS campaign.

Turkey has stated that the roadmap includes a phase, 60 days after it begins, during which Turkish and U.S. officials will agree on setting up a local administration to govern the area.

The two sides’ statements seemingly diverge on this point as well, with the U.S. officials adamant that the Manbij Military Council should, after the YPG’s withdrawal, continue to govern the area, which they say has been stable under the council’s rule.

The multi-ethnic council was set up in 2016 by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a YPG-linked group, to govern the area after the defeat of ISIS.

In any case, U.S. forces will be staying in the region and hope to patrol, alongside Turkey the demarcation lines separating factions, the officials said.