“This base is of the [US-led] Coalition… It was established to counterattack the Turkish threat. The Coalition is here for the Turks,” one Kurdish fighter, identified as the “Sheikh of the Mountain,” told Ruptly video news agency. He was speaking about one of the US outposts set up not far from the northern Syrian city of Manbij, which is now controlled by the US-backed Kurdish militias. Earlier, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated that Ankara plans to target Manbij in its operation against the Kurds in northern Syria.
Footage recorded by Ruptly shows an outpost with a perimeter of large sand barriers and US flags waving. The fortified position was reportedly established on the frontline zone west of Manbij, not far from the Sajur River, which forms the border between the areas held by the Kurds and the pro-Turkish forces in northern Syria.
The US troops continue to build up their forces in the area and have increased the number of patrols along the Sajur River. “Now, they [the Americans] have patrols every day,” a Kurdish fighter told Ruptly, adding that the US aircraft also perform reconnaissance flights in the area to track the movements of the pro-Turkish forces.
Kurds claim that the coalition forces in the Manbij area are equipped with “heavy weapons” and “weapons that can counter all the available weapons.” The video, however, only shows about half a dozen lightly armored all-terrain vehicles and mine resistant ambush-protected personnel carriers, equipped with machine guns, stationed at the US outpost.
The Kurdish fighters also expressed their confidence that the US forces would support them in case Turkey decides to proceed with its operation in northern Syria and move on Manbij. The US military also allegedly pledged to coordinate their actions with the Kurdish militias in case of an attack on the area.
US military officials, however, still have not issued any comments on the matter. Earlier this week, both Turkish and Kurdish media outlets reported on “bases” being established by the US in the Manbij area, citing sources on the ground.
Around 300 US troops in armored vehicles allegedly have already arrived at the frontline zone and have set up two outposts, located 8km (4.9 miles) and 4km (2.4 mi) from the frontline, a report by the Turkish Anadolu news agency said. US media have also reported on the issue. CNN said that the US military has been working on plans to send dozens of additional troops to northern Syria, while the New York Times published photos of the US “bases” that, it said, “started appearing online.”
Relations between the two NATO allies have been particularly strained since Ankara launched its Operation Olive Branch, targeting the then Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin in northwestern Syria three months ago. The Turkish move followed the US announcement that it was planning to support the predominantly-Kurdish militia force, the SDF, with training and weapons.
The Turkish government sees the Syrian Kurdish militias as an offshoot of its domestic militant movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara has designated as a terrorist group. The controversial cross-border offensive launched by Ankara was aimed at driving Kurdish forces off the Turkish border.
After the Turkish military, aided by its Free Syrian Army (FSA) allies, seized the Syrian city of Afrin on March 19, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the operation would target other Kurdish-held towns and may even spill over into Iraq. Later, he named the Iraqi town of Sinjar and Tal Rifaat in northern Aleppo, Syria, as the next targets.
The situation around Manbij, however, also remains tense as Turkey repeatedly has spoken of its intention to target the city as well, vowing to “return it to the true owners.” It also repeatedly demanded that US troops leave the city. The American military rebuffed these demands.
The issue of the support the US was lending to the Syrian Kurds seems to have become the stumbling block in relations between Washington and Ankara. In mid-March, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Turkey was “at breaking point in relations with the US” because of the situation with the Kurds.
The Turkish officials also repeatedly accused the US of failing to “keep its word” and lying to its allies. In February, Cavusoglu demanded “concrete steps” from Washington to mend bilateral relations. The signals coming from Washington, however, have been mixed. Late in 2017, US President Donald Trump promised to end arms supplies to the Kurds. In January 2018, US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster repeated this promise to the Turkish Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin. At the same time, Washington made it clear that US troops would not leave Manbij.
The US establishment seems unable to find common ground among themselves on the issue. While President Trump recently expressed, once again, his intention to withdraw troops from Syria, the US military are allegedly determined to send an additional contingent to the Middle Eastern country.