Boots on the Ground: American Forces in Manbij

In the beginning of March, around 100 Army Rangers[1] were sent to the Syrian city of Manbij with the goal of stopping clashes[2] between two key American-allied fighting forces: the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and a coalition of rebel groups backed by the Turkish military. Controlling and stabilizing the northern city of Manbij is vital to isolating and capturing ISIS’s de-facto capital, Raqqa. The Rangers’ presence has been dubbed a “reassurance and deterrence”[3] mission, and has seen no major problems thus far.  However, the situation on the ground in Manbij is incredibly complex. The highly visible 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 location 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 US-backed SDF, which is primarily composed of the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units), captured Manbij from the Islamic State. In an immediate and aggressive 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 been in near-constant conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party[4], or PKK, for more than thirty years, because they wish to counter the PKK’s goal of Kurdish independence in southeast Turkey. Since the beginning of Kurdish participation in the Syrian conflict, Turkish leadership has sworn to prevent the establishment of any autonomous Kurdish territory east of the Euphrates. Turkey is concerned that any contiguous Kurdish territory in northern Syria could serve as a base of operations for Kurdish PKK fighters to launch attacks in Turkey and increase the likelihood of an independent Kurdish state on Turkey’s southern border. The deployment of American forces to Manbij is a clear response to increasingly aggressive Turkish threats to capture the city from the SDF. American boots on the ground have clearly dissuaded Turkish PM Tayyip Erdogan from moving his forces into the city, but a hundred American troops cannot necessarily ensure even temporary peace between Kurdish and pro-Turkish forces embroiled in an intense conflict rooted in centuries of ethnic hatred and oppression.

The Russian presence in the region also stems from a common desire to avoid a new fight for Manbij between Turkish and Kurdish forces. A few weeks ago, the SDF military government in Manbij reportedly requested that Russian and Syrian troops form a buffer zone to protect SDF rebels from the Turkish forces in al-Bab, a city 25 miles southwest. The Syrian regime and it’s Russian allies gladly accepted the SDF’s concession of territory. Now, in a bizarre occurrence, US Army Rangers are patrolling the streets of the same city as Russian troops.

American and Russian forces are both currently in the city of Manbij.
Photo: Adam Weinstein

The deployment of this small force of Army Rangers in Manbij is a major turning point for several reasons. This move is the first clear example of American forces taking an active role in the conflict and serving as essentially a policing force as opposed to providing tactical support for rebel forces. US Special Operations Forces generally do not operate out in the open with the goal of stopping clashes between rival forces, and it is still unclear what exactly a “reassurance and deterrence” mission entails. The presence of American combat forces in close proximity to both 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 on the outskirts of the city, while the Russians and Syrians operate without clear and direct coordination with the Americans. US Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend summarized[5] 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, and the American convoys have been prominently displaying American flags to try and make their presence clear and avoid cases of mistaken identity. Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis told the Military Times[6] that the soldiers maintain the right to defend themselves but refused to elaborate on any possible response in the case of a direct attack. Even if there is no direct attack on US troops, what are the Rangers supposed to do if deterrence fails and clashes break out between pro-Turkish fighters and SDF forces?

In addition to the possibility of major consequences stemming from new fighting in Manbij or an accidental or intentional confrontation with either Russian or Turkish backed forces, it is also unclear what the long-term plan for Manbij is. It will be very difficult for the US to pull out of Manbij without precipitating renewed clashes or a Turkish invasion of the Kurdish-controlled city, making it hard to determine what might constitute an intelligent exit strategy. Hopefully, the Pentagon has a viable plan to pull out of the city without completely destabilizing the area, but the situation in Manbij could easily become a slippery slope.

The Trump administration seems determined to put the foreign policy legacy of the Obama administration behind them, and is clearly pursuing a more aggressive strategy[7] in Iraq and Syria. However, a troop surge in Syria could lead the United States down an all too familiar road in the Middle East. There are now almost a thousand American ground troops in Syria, and some officials in the Pentagon are reportedly worried[8] about the possibility of ending up in another large-scale ground war.

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.

Works Cited:

[1] DeGrandpre, Andrew. “U.S. and Russian troops are now in the same Syrian city.” Military Times. March 13, 2017. Accessed March 22, 2017.

[2] “Turkish and US-backed Kurdish forces clash near Syria’s Manbij.” Middle East Eye. March 1, 2017. Accessed March 22, 2017.

[3] “The Pentagon’s ‘reassure and deter’ mission in Syria looks a lot like mission creep.” Military Times. March 18, 2017. Accessed March 22, 2017.

[4] Worth, Robert F. “Behind the Barricades of Turkey’s Hidden War.” The New York Times. May 24, 2016. Accessed March 22, 2017.

[5] Deeb, Sarah El. “Turkey, Kurds, Russia, U.S. forces make up a confusing, violent pageant in Syria.” Chicago Tribune. March 11, 2017. Accessed March 22, 2017.

[6] DeGrandpre, Andrew. “U.S. and Russian troops are now in the same Syrian city.” Military Times. March 13, 2017. Accessed March 22, 2017.

[7] Rucker, Philip, and Missy Ryan. “Trump orders Pentagon to draft ISIS strategy, restructuring of security council.” The Washington Post. January 28, 2017. Accessed March 22, 2017.

[8] Bender, Bryan. “Trump’s Mideast surge has Pentagon debating ‘mission creep’.” POLITICO. March 17, 2017. Accessed March 22, 2017.