Will U.S. Fight Turkey? American Soldiers Will Not Leave City About to Be Attacked, Says Top General

The U.S. military intends to remain in the northern Syrian city of Manbij despite an incoming offensive backed by Turkey, which, along with Ankara’s rebel allies, has launched an assault on nearby Kurdish forces sponsored by the Pentagon.

With the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) mostly defeated in the east, the focus of Syria’s nearly seven-year war has shifted west, particularly to the northwestern district of Afrin, where Turkey and the insurgent Free Syrian Army have begun attacking a Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG was the primary faction behind the Syrian Democratic Forces that led U.S. efforts to destroy ISIS on the ground, but it also was considered a terrorist organization by Turkey because of its alleged links to a Kurdish nationalist insurgency at home.

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As the complex politics of northern Syria’s battlefield erupted into bloodshed between two U.S. allies, Central Command Commander General Joseph Vogel told CNN Monday that withdrawing his troops from nearby Manbij was “not something we are looking into,” even as Turkey threatened to advance into the Kurd-controlled city.

GettyImages-648338982 A convoy of U.S. armored vehicles drives on the outskirts of Manbij, Syria, on March 5, 2017. Since ousting ISIS from the mixed Kurdish and Arab city, Manbij has been a flashpoint for intersecting and opposing interests of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army and the Russia-backed Syrian military. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. has so far stood aside as the Pentagon-backed Syrian Democratic Forces attempted to defend the northwestern district of Afrin from Turkey, a member of the U.S.-led NATO alliance, and the formerly CIA-backed Free Syrian Army that has regularly targeted U.S. forces in the area. In November, the Pentagon revealed it had deployed more than 1,700 U.S. personnel to support the Syrian Democratic Forces battling ISIS in Syria.

While the Pentagon reiterated its support for Kurdish members of the Syrian Democratic Forces still battling ISIS in rapidly shrinking pockets of territory in the east, U.S. military leadership warned that the U.S.-led coalition would not support Kurdish efforts to reallocate resources to battle Turkey in the northwest. The U.S. has also warned Turkey that its operation was “impeding the task to eliminate ISIS,” and President Donald Trump reportedly urged his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to “exercise caution” in a phone call Wednesday.

Turkish officials, however, denied that Trump made that request, and their forces pressed on with the bombardment of Kurd-controlled towns and villages. Turkey has likened the YPG to ISIS in the danger it posed, as the Kurdish militia was thought to have direct connections to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant organization that has waged a bloody campaign of guerrilla warfare against Turkish security forces for more than three decades.

Erdoğan vowed Friday that his forces would “clean up” Manbij and demanded that U.S. forces leave. Analysts described the city as a red line for the U.S.’s tolerance of the Turkish incursion.

GettyImages-911797086 Turkish soldiers on Mount Bersaya, north of the Syrian town of Azaz, near the border with Turkey, on January 29. Turkey’s so-called Operation Olive Branch threatened to put its forces on a collision course with NATO partner the U.S., which backed Kurdish militias fighting ISIS in Syria. NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images

The city of Manbij first fell out of the hands of the Syrian government in 2012, when it was seized by rebels fighting to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with the support of the U.S., Turkey and Gulf Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In 2014, local insurgents were dislodged by ISIS, which had spread across half of Iraq and Syria and either defeated or absorbed much of the armed opposition in the latter.

The U.S. formed an international coalition to bomb ISIS that year and, as it scaled back support to beleaguered rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army, it invested in the Kurdish fighters who comprised the Syrian Democratic Forces in October 2015, a month after Russia intervened to assist Assad. The following summer, U.S.-backed rebels ousted ISIS from Manbij as Syrian troops, backed by Russia and Iran, cleared the rest of Aleppo of rebels.

Turkey, outraged at the U.S.’s support for Kurdish militias, launched Operation Euphrates Shield, invading northern Syria to shore up the Free Syrian Army against ISIS, the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian military. In the first major test of overlapping U.S. and Russian interests in Syria, both countries deployed troops to assist their respective allies in holding parts of Manbij in the face of the Turkish offensive, which ultimately backed down.

Like the U.S., Russia has largely stayed out of the fight between Turkey and the Kurds, seeking to maintain relations with both. The assault on Afrin, however, led Kurdish groups to decline their invitation to the upcoming Syrian National Congress hosted by Russia, which hoped it would serve as a platform for peace in the devastated country. Moscow’s main ally, Assad, also has called for international action against the Turkish invasion.

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