While contradicting statements regarding the situation in al-Bab continue to come in, Turkey said last week that it plans to capture Manbij, Raqqa and even Afrin after al-Bab.
Afrin has been generally spared from the war, apart from artillery shelling from time-to-time by fundamentalist groups and the Turkish army. The town and its surrounding areas on the border with Turkey has been under autonomous self-administration as the Canton if Afrin, part of the Rojava framework established by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).
Manbij is also part of the same autonomous framework since August 2016 when the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) pushed the Islamic State (IS) out of the city. Plans to unite the northeastern cantons with Afrin in the northwest, clearing the territory in between from IS fighters, were put on hold by Turkey’s Euphrates Shield Operation. Turkish troops and various groups, consisting of mostly Islamic fundamentalists under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), took the city of Jarablus and the territory between the cantons.
The Coordination of the Rojava Cantons said Ankara’s plans to push out the SDF from Manbij is preventing them from fighting IS. The coordination accused Turkey for not wanting to end the war and called upon the international community, human rights organisations and the United Nations (UN) to take a stance against “the occupation and attacks directed at the will of the peoples of the area.”
In the Raqqa offensive the US has relied on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its most important component, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), a choice that has angered Ankara much.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkish troops would move on to take Manbij and Raqqa after the al-Bab operation in order to form a safe zone for “mainly our Arab and Turkmen brothers and sisters to settle into.”
However, the international coalition seems to have faith in the SDF. “At this stage, the force that looks most likely capable to conduct the liberation of Raqqa remains the SDF,” said British Major General Rupert Jones via teleconference from Baghdad on Thursday. “Are we confident in the SDF? Absolutely we are. We’ve seen their fighting spirit, we’ve seen what they’re capable of doing. They re-took Manbij, a very tough fight, and they prevailed in the face of a tough — tough opposition”, the major concluded.
US General Joseph Dunford is scheduled to visit Turkey on Friday for Syria talks.