The US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey and the Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn both visited Gaziantep, Turkey last week to speak with Turkish military officials about the issues in eastern Syria. It is part of a growing pattern of outreach by US officials connected to Syria policy to seek out Ankara as a solution to the problems plaguing Syria.
The US Embassy in Syria released a short statement about the Jeffrey and Rayburn meeting, indicating they had discussed issues involving "Syrian refugees, civil society actors, and political groups working in Syria." The two US officials also "visited the site of US and Turkish military rehearsals for joint patrols in fulfillment of the Manbij Roadmap."
Manbij is a Syrian town in northern Syria that was liberated from ISIS in 2016 by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF are the main partners of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition and have been fighting ISIS for years, helping to liberate Raqqa and other areas from terrorist groups.
However, there are tensions in Manbij because Turkey also wants to play a role and has sent troops into northern Syria to back Syrian rebels groups. Turkey asserts that the SDF is backed by the People's Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara views as a terrorist organization and is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Into this complex mix comes the US, which has sought to balance Turkey's concerns with its role in eastern Syria. The US has sent forces to Manbij. During the past year when tensions between the YPG and Turkey escalated, the US has sought to warn Turkey from increasing clashes. This happened in October when Turkey shelled border areas in northern Syria.
The US now wants to set up observation points in northern Syria to cool tensions, but also wants Turkey to play a role near Manbij with joint patrols. These patrols involve both US and Turkish troops, but don't involve the SDF or Syrian rebels, who are partners of the US and Turkey, respectively.
In a bizarre development, the US and Turkey have taken over from the local people in this respect. However, in meetings over the weekend the US stressed that it was meeting with civil society groups including NGOs, adding that it would work on "implementing stabilization projects in Syria, and Syrian refugees," and "reaffirmed the US commitment to providing lifesaving humanitarian assistance to Syrians." The US also said that it "discussed issues facing the Syrian diaspora and the necessity for a Syrian-led and owned political process under UN Security Council resolution 2254."
The language of this statement is being watched closely in Ankara and among SDF and Kurdish groups in eastern Syria. The Kurds have been the bulwark of the SDF fighting ISIS, and many are engaged in the battle in Hajin in southern Syria along with other Syrian groups, such as local Arabs and Christians, who are fighting to liberate the last part of Syria from ISIS control.
On December 10, Nuri Mahmud, spokesman for the YPG, told Kurdistan 24 that Turkey wants to destabilize eastern Syria. He also noted that many of the ISIS fighters, who were captured by the SDF had Turkish stamps in their passports.
Ankara, for its part, does not trust the US claims that the US is opposed to the PKK.
In November, the US State Department offered million dollar bounties for the three leaders of the PKK. At the same time, Jeffrey indicated that the US sees the PYD – the political party that plays a primary role in eastern Syria – as the Syrian offshoot of the PKK. From Ankara's point of view, the US is just pretending to juggle an alphabet soup of different organizations in eastern Syria, which are all PKK affiliates. But from the SDF point of view, the US is asking the SDF to fight ISIS while appeasing Turkey. The SDF has said it will not accept being shelled in northern Syria while its men and women fighters die for every meter of land liberated from ISIS in Hajin.
The US appears to be putting the pressure on to try to assuage Turkey's concerns. The meetings with Syrian refugee groups in Turkey is an indicator that the US sees them as playing a future role in eastern Syria. In addition, the US Embassy has praised the role of Turkish-backed groups in Jarabulus, north of Manbij, where Turkey has helped with medical care and education. The US message is that Turkey can and will play a positive role in Syria.
At the same time, the US wants to "stabilize" the rest of eastern Syria and use it as leverage against Iran, while also defeating ISIS.
This multiplicity of objectives is leaving both US allies and partners wondering what the US's goal actually is and if it will eventually leave.
In the regional context, this has immense ramifications because of Iran's role in Syria and also because US adversaries, particularly Iran and Russia, who want to help the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus retake most of the Syria. They are also waiting to see if the US is serious about stabilizing eastern Syria.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.