An ad hoc arrangement that curtailed conflict in a northern Syrian flashpoint town could be a blueprint in other areas of Syria and Iraq for peace and stability once Islamic State fighters have been routed, military officials and analysts say.
The Syrian town of Manbij recently became a battle zone when Kurdish, Arab and Turkish forces came toe-to-toe, vying for territorial control in the area months after IS was removed with the support of the U.S.-led coalition.
But quiet diplomacy last week involving commanders from Turkey, the U.S. and Russia reportedly hammered out a loose deal restoring peace in Manbij and entrenching unallied international forces in buffer zones.
The agreement paved the way for leaving governance in Manbij to the local population, refocusing what had been feuding military units on the continuing war against IS elsewhere in Syria.
“International forces, especially the United States and Russia, played a very important role in reaching the agreement,” said Nasir Hajj Mansur, a commander with the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). “The presence of foreign forces have been instrumental in keeping peace in Manbij.”
Turkey has objected to having Kurdish YPG, the main force within the SDF, in Manbij and has vowed to battle it in parts of northern Syria. But Turkish officials recently toned down their anti-Kurdish rhetoric in the region.
“Finding a diplomatic solution with the U.S. and Russia [for] Manbij has become a necessity,” Turkish defense minister Fikri Isik said Thursday. “A military approach would only be considered if diplomacy failed.”
And analysts believe that Ankara has realized a diplomatic approach at present is a more realistic way to sort out problems in northern Syria.
“I believe Turkey will continue to make its case behind the scenes quietly and diplomatically that YPG forces should leave Manbij,” said Bulent Aliriza, a Turkey analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “I do not think they will take military action.”
For the time being, U.S. Army Rangers stand not far from Russian soldiers entrenched in Syrian government unions while local militias, Kurds and Turkish-backed forces keep to their areas. International forces fly flags to clearly delineate their identities and locations.
U.S. forces are flying the flag “to make sure that there is no mistake or miscalculation about who is there,” U.S. Col. John Dorrian, the Baghdad-based spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters at the Pentagon.
“I would say that when our forces go into a city … and they’re visible, that this has a reassuring effect on the people in the area,” he said.
As the arrangement plays out, the U.S.-led coalition and its allies are hopeful similar deals could be made elsewhere in the region as forces continue to oust IS fighters from towns and cities. But U.S. officials say each case is unique.
“You can liberate a city, but unless you come in with leadership, local governance, and deal with some of the … real issues of reestablishing infrastructure, electricity, that kind of thing, basic services, but also dealing with some of the political tensions and dynamics and addressing them with reforms, I think … then you’re not going to win the overall battle,” U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said this week.
“Part of what we need to do … is going to be how do we look at not just defeating IS on the battlefield, but making sure that they’re eliminated from the social fabric, that they don’t somehow, we don’t simply defeat them tactically and not defeat them online, in other spaces, so that they can no longer recruit, there’s no longer people who would be swayed by their cause,” he said. “And part of that is going to be how do you enact the kind of political reform.”
Looking to Raqqa
As the battle to recapture Raqqa — IS’s de facto capital in Syria — is nearing, Kurdish officials hope an arrangement like the one in Manbij could be used in Raqqa.
“Any area in Syria that gets liberated from [IS] will be handed over to its people so they can run it by themselves, because a federal system is the best solution for Syria,” Saleh Muslim, a high-ranking Kurdish official, told the pan-Arab al-Hayat newspaper, adding that “what happened in Manbij could happen in Raqqa and elsewhere.”
Kurdish officials also say this method allows local communities to take charge of their affairs, alleviating sectarian and ethnic tensions.
“As soon as our forces liberate Raqqa, a civilian council will take over to lead local affairs,” SDF commander Mansur said.
And the U.S., too, has been helping to find individuals who can govern a post-IS Raqqa, local military officials said.
“In fact we, along with our American partners, have been consulting with local tribal leaders and other effective people from Raqqa for the next phase in the city,” Mansur told VOA.