The Manbij Attack Exposes the Vulnerabilities of US Policy in Syria

On January 16, US forces in Syria suffered the deadliest attack since their involvement in the country began in September 2014. Two American soldiers, a defense contractor, and a civilian working with the Defense Department were killed, in addition to 10 Syrians, when a suicide bomber from the Islamic State (IS) targeted a convoy patrolling Manbij in northern Syria. After President Donald Trump’s decision on December 19 to withdraw troops from Syria, US policy has shown signs of vulnerability both on the diplomatic front and now in the battlefield.

In recent weeks, the ambiguity and hesitancy of the Trump Administration’s approach to Syria led to three major policy implications. First, the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis and Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to counter ISIS Brett McGurk—two key players in the US interaction with regional decision-makers on Syria—left a bureaucratic void in Washington. The recent Middle East tours of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton did not seem to have convinced allies of the US commitment to Syria and the Middle East. The US approach remains in disarray with no clear timeline or plans to execute the withdrawal and without a defined mission to stay the course. Last week, the Trump Administration had to clarify that only military equipment would be removed for now. The conundrum of US military commanders is how to please Trump and follow his orders while, in the short term, preserve the US mission in Syria.

Second, Trump’s hasty decision undermined US diplomacy. Even though American forces in Syria are not in combat mode, their mere withdrawal reinforces the impression that the United States is retreating from the Middle East. This troop disengagement will most likely not hinder American capability to launch drone attacks and cross-border air strikes from the Iraqi border or to utilize the al-Tanf base on the joint Iraqi-Syrian-Jordanian border in the southeast. However, there is skepticism whether Washington is ready and willing to deter Iran beyond imposing sanctions, and Pompeo’s argument that the US withdrawal is tactical and separate from deterring Iran is not convincing. Even if the US withdrawal is not ultimately achieved, it will be difficult to undo the damage such a decision leaves on US policy in the Middle East.

The third policy impact is on the battlefield. The withdrawal announcement was a distraction from the military operations against IS and has subsequently empowered this extremist group to reemerge in Manbij and benefit from the chaotic situation. Moreover, Manbij itself has been at the center of tensions between Washington and Ankara. When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized Bolton for affirming that Ankara must protect Kurds in Syria, Trump threatened to “devastate” the Turkish economy if a Turkish attack were launched against the Kurds. However, the Trump Administration continues its murky attempt at a balancing act between the Turks and the Kurds without offering a clear and viable path forward. Perhaps realizing the damage his threat to the Turkish economy has caused, the US president held a telephone conversation with his Turkish counterpart and announced that cooperation between the two countries will resume on how they resolve their differences.

While the explosion targeting American forces seems to be a single attack, what remains a dangerous situation in Manbij is the looming confrontation between Turkish-backed Syrian groups and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as the Syrian regime is amassing forces near Manbij. Kurdish groups have officially called upon Damascus to enter Manbij and fill the vacuum to prevent any Turkish incursion. The SDF in Manbij is now surrounded by Turkish-backed groups on the northern and western fronts while Syrian regime forces are on the southern front. What unfolds in Manbij can impact what happens next east of the Euphrates River.

Turkey wanted a full withdrawal of the People’s Protection Units (YPG)—the Kurdish militia in Syria that is pivotal in the SDF—from Manbij ahead of the US military departure, but neither this nor the American withdrawal is expected to occur in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile both Turkish and Kurdish officials are hedging their bets ahead of the US withdrawal. A senior Kurdish official noted that “we will deal with whoever can protect the good and stability of this country.” Kurdish officials in Syria are in touch with Moscow, Damascus, and key European countries to seek an alternative for the US withdrawal.

Erdoğan also seems to be drawing bids from both Washington and Moscow to see who can offer Ankara the best deal to establish a 20-mile-deep security zone on the Turkish-Syrian border. During their phone call on January 14, Trump and Erdoğan discussed “the idea of creating a security zone cleared of terrorism in the north of the country,” which basically excludes the YPG. Erdoğan is expected to consider the same idea with Putin next week. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted that Moscow would take Turkish interests into consideration while establishing a Syrian regime-controlled safe zone. The notions of creating a safe zone and deploying Arab troops in northern Syria are recurring ones in the Syrian conflict; however, they remain unfeasible and are typically discussed when Washington is unwilling to play a leading role to guarantee stability.

Moreover, the Manbij attack exposes the crisis of US policy in Syria overall. The pillars of the Trump Administration’s policy in the country have been to defeat IS, prevent a Turkish-Kurdish confrontation, deny Iran a foothold in Syria, and veto a Russian-led political process that contradicts US interests. All these objectives are currently at risk. Moving forward, the White House will be tempted to retaliate against the Islamic State as a show of force, which will deepen US involvement in the Syrian conflict in the short term. It is difficult, however, to see how a US withdrawal could be imminent or accomplished without a deal with Turkey; this seems unlikely in the foreseeable future as both sides have irreconcilable interests in northern Syria. While the American decision to withdraw has whet Turkish and Russian appetite to fill the vacuum the US would leave behind, the recent IS attack in Manbij might tip the balance and persuade Trump to stay a bit longer in Syria.