In the beginning of March, around 100 Army Rangers were sent to the Syrian city of Manbij with the goal of preventing fighting between two key American-allied fighting forces: the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and a coalition of rebel groups allied with Turkey. Controlling and stabilizing the northern city of Manbij is vital to isolate and capture ISIS’s de-facto capital, Raqqa. This “reassurance and deterrence” mission has been relatively successful so far, but the situation on the ground in Manbij is incredibly complex. The American ground presence in the contested city of Manbij could easily lead to further involvement in Syria, or even spawn a dangerous international flashpoint.
Manbij is, in some ways, representative of the complexity of the conflict in Syria as a whole. The city has emerged in the fight against ISIS as a strategically important spot for the major state actors in the Syrian conflict: Turkey, the US, Russia, and Syria. Understanding the situation on the ground involves unraveling the strange and complex web of allegiances and goals in the Syrian quagmire.
Last August, the SDF, which is primarily composed of the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units), captured the town from the Islamic State. In response to Kurdish control of the city, Turkey deployed troops into Syria and demanded that Kurdish forces retreat to the eastern side of the Euphrates River. Turkey has sworn to prevent the establishment of any autonomous Kurdish territory east of the Euphrates, and has named its military operation in Syria “Operation Euphrates Shield.” The recent deployment of American forces to Manbij is a clear response to Turkish threats to capture the city from the SDF, and American boots on the ground have clearly dissuaded Turkish PM Tayyip Erdogan from moving his forces into the city.The Russian and Syrian presence in the region also stems from a common desire to avoid a new fight for Manbij between Turkish and Kurdish forces; the Manbij military council requested that Russian and Syrian troops form a buffer zone between SDF-controlled Manbij and the Turkish forces in al-Bab, a city 25 miles southwest. Now, in a bizarre occurrence, Army Rangers are patrolling the streets of the same city as Russian troops.
The deployment of this small force of Army Rangers in Manbij is a major turning point for several reasons. This move is the first real example of American forces taking an active role in the conflict and serving as essentially a policing force, as opposed to just providing tactical support for rebel forces. An attack on American forces is more likely as they take on a more active role, especially as they operate in a volatile and complex security environment like Manbij. The presence of American combat forces in close proximity to Russian forces and Turkish-supported forces means that an unintended clash could have major international consequences. Turkish-allied rebel forces have recently been shelling Russian and Syrian positions in the city, while the Russians and Syrians operate without clear and direct coordination with the Americans. US Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend summarized the situation appropriately, saying that all of the major forces acting in Syria have converged “within hand-grenade range of one another.” It is unclear what the American response would be if the Rangers come under fire, but the American convoys have been prominently displaying American flags to try to make their presence clear and avoid any cases of mistaken identity. Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis told the Military Times that the soldiers maintain the right to defend themselves, but refused to elaborate on any possible response in the case of a direct attack.
In addition to the possibility of major consequences stemming from an accidental or intentional clash in Manbij with either Russian or Turkish backed forces, it is also unclear what the long-term plan for Manbij is. It may be difficult for the US to pull out of Manbij without precipitating renewed clashes, and due to intense Turkish opposition to allowing the Kurds to control the city long term, it is difficult to determine what might constitute an intelligent exit strategy. Direct intervention often leads to more intervention, and this small Special Operations Forces deployment to Manbij may prove to be the start of direct American engagement on the ground in Syria.