The U.S. military intends to remain in the northern Syrian city of Manbij despite an incoming offensive backed by Turkey, which, along with Ankara's rebel allies, has launched an assault on nearby Kurdish forces sponsored by the Pentagon.
With the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) mostly defeated in the east, the focus of Syria's nearly seven-year war has shifted west, particularly to the northwestern district of Afrin, where Turkey and the insurgent Free Syrian Army have begun attacking a Kurdish militia known as the People's Protection Units (YPG). The YPG was the primary faction behind the Syrian Democratic Forces that led U.S. efforts to destroy ISIS on the ground, but it also was considered a terrorist organization by Turkey because of its alleged links to a Kurdish nationalist insurgency at home.
As the complex politics of northern Syria's battlefield erupted into bloodshed between two U.S. allies, Central Command Commander General Joseph Vogel told CNN Monday that withdrawing his troops from nearby Manbij was "not something we are looking into," even as Turkey threatened to advance into the Kurd-controlled city.
The U.S. has so far stood aside as the Pentagon-backed Syrian Democratic Forces attempted to defend the northwestern district of Afrin from Turkey, a member of the U.S.-led NATO alliance, and the formerly CIA-backed Free Syrian Army that has regularly targeted U.S. forces in the area. In November, the Pentagon revealed it had deployed more than 1,700 U.S. personnel to support the Syrian Democratic Forces battling ISIS in Syria.
While the Pentagon reiterated its support for Kurdish members of the Syrian Democratic Forces still battling ISIS in rapidly shrinking pockets of territory in the east, U.S. military leadership warned that the U.S.-led coalition would not support Kurdish efforts to reallocate resources to battle Turkey in the northwest. The U.S. has also warned Turkey that its operation was "impeding the task to eliminate ISIS," and President Donald Trump reportedly urged his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to "exercise caution" in a phone call Wednesday.
Turkish officials, however, denied that Trump made that request, and their forces pressed on with the bombardment of Kurd-controlled towns and villages. Turkey has likened the YPG to ISIS in the danger it posed, as the Kurdish militia was thought to have direct connections to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant organization that has waged a bloody campaign of guerrilla warfare against Turkish security forces for more than three decades.
Erdoğan vowed Friday that his forces would "clean up" Manbij and demanded that U.S. forces leave. Analysts described the city as a red line for the U.S.'s tolerance of the Turkish incursion.