US And Russian Troops Are Both In This Syrian City. What Could Go Wrong?

Photoillustration/Adam Weinstein

Nothing says “victory against terror” like two competing global powers’ militaries, operating without coordination, in one frontline Middle Eastern town whose status is disputed by hordes of armed proxy fighters "within hand-grenade range of one another," as one U.S. general puts it.

That’s the situation facing about 100 Army Rangers and their Russian counterparts in Manbij, a Syrian city liberated from ISIS late last year and now claimed by quibbling Kurds and Turkish-aligned fighters, according to Military Times:

Fewer than 100 elite Army Rangers are in Manbij to keep the peace between Syrian Kurdish forces and those loyal to Turkey, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. Russian troops are there providing security for humanitarian convoys that have entered the war-torn city, a development he called unsurprising in light of last week's high-level talks between the senior-most military commanders from Russia, Turkey and the U.S.

The Americans and Russians have had no close interaction on the ground, Davis said. Moscow, he added, has "kept us abreast of their operations" in Manbij, but the two militaries do not coordinate in Syria. Rather, the Pentagon prefers the term "deconflict."

Indeed, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters Monday that “Why we're there, and why we care, is we want to make sure the parties on the ground aren't shooting at each other.”

Manbij is something like the Mos Eisley of the Syrian Civil War right now, a way station for trigger-pullers and agenda-pushers. Last summer, U.S.-backed forces aligned with leftist Syrian Kurdish political factions succeeded in pushing ISIS fighters out of Manbij. That operation also cut off ISIS’s vital supply routes into Turkey.

Slide from a June 2016 Pentagon presentation on the strategic importance of Manbij to ISIS.

That Manbij operation, however, has Turkey’s government on edge. Turkey is wary of armed Kurds carving out their own mini-state along the Syria-Turkey border, and pro-Turkish militias also have designs on the city. Russia, which has a strong alliance with Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad, has been running convoys through the city and concern-trolling the Turks. Assad, for his part, has called U.S. troops in Syria “invaders.” And now, of course, the Rangers are in town.

The US military’s objectives in Manbij — beyond preparing for the final assault on ISIS’s capital, Raqqa — are a little fuzzy. As Davis suggested, American forces are trying to temper the passions of Kurdish, Turkish, and Assad forces in the area, wrestling with a Pandora’s box of nationalist, ethnic, and religious disputes backed by small arms.

Pro-Assad, pro-Russian media outlet ANNA News showed footage of what appeared to be Russian soldiers in a convoy to Manbij, claiming that Russian forces were helping to keep the peace and hold warring factions at bay:

In fact, there are signs that the Russians are using Monday’s Pentagon comments to legitimize their own operations in Syria and influence the other bickering factions. “Russia Keeps US 'Abreast' of Manbij Ops, No Close Calls Registered - Pentagon,” the Moscow-based, government-owned Sputnik News declared Tuesday, quoting Capt. Davis liberally. It went on to say that the “US military was ‘taking all necessary measures’ to defend Manbij from a possible assault by Turkish troops.” Propaganda or not, no war on terror, it turns out, is ever simple or easy.

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