The United States and Turkey have reached agreement on the withdrawal of U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters from the northern Syrian town of Manbij, and the military forces of the two countries will begin joint patrols of the area, U.S. and Turkish officials said.
The agreement is designed to defuse one of the most serious and long-running disagreements between the two NATO allies, whose troops in Syria have come perilously close to conflict with each other over the past year.
Finalized at a meeting in Washington on Monday between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, the agreement sets out a road map of steps for Kurdish withdrawal and the establishment of new security arrangements for Manbij as part of what Pompeo on Tuesday called “the phase after ISIS.” ISIS is an acronym for the Islamic State.
Key elements of the deal were first negotiated by Rex Tillerson, Pompeo’s predecessor as secretary of state, days before he was fired by President Trump in early March.
Turkey has long charged that the United States failed to uphold a commitment, initially made by the Obama administration, that its Kurdish allies in the fight against the Islamic State would be kept east of the Euphrates River that runs from Turkey into Syria.
The Syrian Kurds helped to take Manbij — located 20 miles west of the river and about 25 miles south of Turkey’s border — from the Islamic State in 2016 and have been there ever since. They belong to the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which has formed the backbone of the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State in Syria. The Turkish government considers the YPG to be terrorists seeking a permanent Kurdish enclave allied with separatist Kurdish militants inside Turkey.
U.S. officials who briefed reporters on the new agreement declined to specify a timetable or to confirm Turkish media reports that the YPG would leave the town within 30 days, that joint patrols would begin in 45 days and that a new Manbij governing body would be established within 60 days.
The Kurdish-led council currently in charge of Manbij security will gradually be replaced by local, primarily Arab forces, the officials said.
“The idea behind this is not for the U.S. or Turkey to take over Manbij,” said a State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The idea is for the people of Manbij to reassert their leadership over both governance and security structures there.”
In a move that appeared linked to the deal, Kurdish forces in Syria announced Tuesday that after more than two years training the Manbij Military Council, “the general command of the YPG decided to withdraw our military advisers.”
The statement did not mention the U.S.-Turkish road map.
Cavusoglu, in statements reported by Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, said the agreement also included disarming the YPG, suggesting that the “Manbij model” could be applied to other Kurdish-held areas of Syria.
But it appeared unlikely that any further moves would be made in the near term to remove the Syrian Kurds from the anti-
Islamic State fight, which has left them in charge of several Syrian population centers. Hard-fought operations to mop up Islamic State remnants along the Syria-Iraq border already had been delayed for months this year as large numbers of Kurdish fighters abandoned that fight to join other Syrian Kurds resisting Turkish forces that moved into northwestern Syria.
The Pentagon, saying that problem had finally been resolved, announced the beginning of Operation Roundup along the Iraqi border in Syria’s far east on May 1.
The U.S. relationship with Turkey has been on a downward trajectory in recent years because of disputes over Syria, the U.S. refusal to extradite a Turkish national whom the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses of responsibility for a failed 2016 coup attempt, and U.S. charges of increasing authoritarianism by Erdogan’s government.
Last year, Turkish forces and groups of Syrian rebel allies moved toward Manbij, determined to oust the Kurds, sparking a strong reaction from the Pentagon. Several hundred U.S. troops based there were reinforced, and the Americans warned that they would defend the Kurds against any attack.
A demarcation line was eventually drawn, with U.S. troops positioned between Turkish and U.S.-backed Syrian forces located only a few miles apart.
While the possibility of a military conflict grew — and American military commanders dug in their heels on removing their Kurdish allies — U.S. and Turkish diplomats continued searching for a solution.
In describing the new agreement, a senior State Department official said that U.S. troops would remain in and around Manbij. “We hope to have our NATO ally Turkey’s military forces . . . [to] help patrol that demarcation line to give confidence to both sides of the line and continue to reduce tensions.” The official was one of two who spoke on the condition of anonymity under State Department rules.
“There are things that we will have to agree on and Turkey will agree on,” the official said. “But we want to make sure that we maintain . . . the stability that we’ve seen in Manbij just because that is quite critical. It’s a very complicated terrain in which you have [Turkish-allied] opposition forces north of Manbij; you have regime forces” loyal to Syrian President Bashir al-Assad “and some Russian forces just south. And of course within the city itself, primarily with the Manbij Military Council and others.”
While the agreement on Manbij may improve relations between the United States and Turkey, it is far from the only source of tension.
Turkey’s purchase of 100 F-35 stealth jets has been delayed by protests in Congress, as lawmakers question the Turkish governments restriction of civil rights and its plans to buy Russia’s S-400 advanced missile defense system.
Cavusoglu, in an interview Monday with “PBS NewsHour,” countered that Turkey already had begun payment for the aircraft, with an initial delivery due later this month. “You cannot cancel this deal because of the S-400s,” he said. “We have good relations with Russia, but the United States is our strategic ally. . . . We have been balancing our foreign policy, but nobody has the right to ask Turkey to choose between any countries or any sides.”
Cunningham reported from Istanbul.