The Sheriff of Manbij: US makes debut in the Syrian War

Interventionism is addictive, it starts with a simple task and one thing can lead to another.

The recent show of force in Manbij meant to preserve the US priority of launching the Raqqa battle and not get distracted in shenanigans of identity politics, writes Macaron [AP]
The recent show of force in Manbij meant to preserve the US priority of launching the Raqqa battle and not get distracted in shenanigans of identity politics, writes Macaron [AP]



Joe Macaron is a policy analyst at the Arab Center Washington DC.

Photos of US Humvees and Stryker combat vehicles patrolling the streets of Manbij are surreal, a reminder that we no longer are under Barack Obama’s restrained doctrine. US generals are now in full control of US policy in Syria.

President Donald Trump is making good on his campaign promise not to tell the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) about his plans to defeat them, yet both allies and foes are puzzled by that new approach.

What is unmistakably true though is that recent changes in the structure, process and tactics of US policy are setting a new tone in northern Syria.

The new mindset

Unlike the centralised approach of his predecessor, the current US president has a hands-off approach – or rather, a preferential treatment – when it comes to the military.

While the CIA halted its coordinated aid to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) last month and the state department is nowhere to be found in either Astana or Geneva peace talks, military commanders have enough margin to decide on launching air strikes and making operational decisions. Having the Pentagonunilaterally shape the Syria policy is the paramount change in Washington.

Next came the change in the US mindset. The new plan to combat ISIL did not inherit the Obama administration’s bewildered approach to Syria.

The long hours at the White House’s Situation Room thinking about the conflict’s nuances and scenarios are over. The only priority now is to defeat ISIL and the betting odds are on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

These structural changes in the US decision-making process led to tactical changes that are altering the dynamics of the Syrian conflict.

OPINION: Operation Euphrates Shield – Progress and scope

First, a consensus among influential players in Syria has emerged, outsourcing the parameters of the Raqqa battle to Washington.

The March 7 meeting in Antalya, Turkey, between the US, Russian and Turkish Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was meant to confirm the new rules of engagement and to de-conflict operations in a crowded hostile environment.

Second, the US-Russian military efforts in northern Syria are increasingly synchronised at the expense of second-tier powers like Iran and Turkey.

Eradicating ISIL without a political horizon or expanding intervention without a clear endgame merely postpone the looming confrontations across Syria.

The first meeting on February 16 in Baku, Azerbaijan between the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US General Joseph Dunford and his Russian counterpart Valery Gerasimov inaugurated this convergence of military interests.

While Iran is sidelined in the short-term, it remains stronger than ever in areas controlled by the Syrian regime. However, the biggest loser in recent weeks has been Turkey.

In a matter of days, Turkish officials switched from threatening to enter Manbij by force to conceding that no Turkish intervention can occur without full coordination with US and Russia.

Chief of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces, Hulusi Akar, centre, US Chairman of the Joint Staff General Joseph Dunford, left, and Russian Chief of General Staff General Valery Gerasimov, right, after their meeting in Antalya, Turkey on March 7 [EPA]

Indeed, the messages were heard loud and clear in Ankara. The US reacted to Turkish threats by deploying special forces while Russia brokered an agreement in which the Manbij Military Council delivered eight villages west of Manbij to the Syrian regime as a buffer zone to prevent clashes between Turkey and the SFD.

Both moves by Washington and Moscow are somehow complementary to protect the back of SDF, so it can focus on the Raqqa battle.

After the military victory in Al Bab last month, Turkish troops have no place to go. All the routes to Raqqa from Manbij, Tel Abyad and Ain al-Arab must go through Kurdish-controlled areas.

The only accomplishment of the August 2016 Turkish incursion into northern Syria remains splitting the Kurdish cantons in half and preventing a unified Kurdish federation along the border.

What Manbij means for US policy

Last year, when the SDF crossed the M4 highway to the west bank of the Euphrates River to capture Manbij, it had a clear US mandate to cut off the last supply route of ISIL from Turkey.

The recent show of force in Manbij meant, above all, to preserve the US priority of launching the Raqqa battle and not get distracted in shenanigans of identity politics.

The new sheriff of Manbij has three rules: no hostile action against the city (that is to say Turkey, Russia or ISIL); no “persistent” YPG presence on the streets; and lastly “enhance local governance”, which is an ambiguous task with long-term implications.

While Russia’s approach is more tactical, seeking a long-term involvement in Syria, the US is looking for quick fixes.

Eradicating ISIL without a political horizon, or expanding intervention without a clear endgame, merely postpone the looming confrontations across Syria. The most daunting challenge is to plan ahead for post-Raqqa liberation.

OPINION: Time to tackle ISIL’s millions of sympathisers?

Deploying a disengagement force in Manbij will go down as the most consequential moment in US policy since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Yet, this move is not without ramifications and it does not mean that US troops are immune from an attack, now they are visible and no longer in support posture only.

Interventionism is addictive, it starts with a simple task and one thing can lead to another. By next year, we might look back and say US direct involvement in the Syrian war began in Manbij .

Joe Macaron is a policy analyst at the Arab Center Washington DC.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


Geneva 4 and the shifting shape of Syria diplomacy

With a parallel track of talks and an amended agenda, the diplomatic process to end Syria’s war is transforming.

The war in Syria has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced half of the country [File: Reuters]



Dylan Collins is a Deputy Editor at Al Jazeera English. He has reported from across the Middle East.

The fourth round of UN-led Syria talks, dubbed Geneva 4, wrapped up last week with a tentative agreement between warring sides on an agenda for future negotiations – but a problematic work plan coupled with shifting international priorities could draw out the already lengthy diplomatic process.

For nine days, United Nations special envoy Staffan de Mistura met separately with delegations from the Syrian government and three different opposition groups in an effort to end six years of bloody war.

But the negotiations, the first in 10 months, turned out be little more than closed-door consultations – evidence of a diplomatic process kept on life-support by the international community for lack of any other option.

Any real movement on the key opposition demand for a political transition remained stalled amid disagreements over the make-up of the opposition delegation and the government’s demand to add “counterterrorism” as a core subject of negotiation.

READ MORE: Idlib’s rebel split – A crossroads for Syrian opposition

De Mistura originally convened the talks to tackle the tenets of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which deals with the subjects of governance, UN-supervised electionsand the formation of a new constitution.

But discussions on political transition were sidelined by a deadly suicide attack on military installations in the government-held city of Homs at the outset of the talks, as representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad‘s government and its Russian backers increasingly shifted the focus towards the necessity of combating “terrorism”.

Lead government negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari accused the opposition’s High Negotiations Council (HNC) – an umbrella group of political and military figures – of holding progress “hostage” by refusing to unify with two smaller opposition groups.

Regardless, de Mistura said the parties ultimately agreed to the framework of an “overall political package for a negotiated transitional political process” in Syria made up of four core subjects of debate, or “baskets”. The first three were given clear implementation timelines and expectations, but analysts say the fourth may prove problematic.

During the next six months, parties are expected to address all issues related to the establishment of “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance” and to set a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution. UN-supervised elections should be held within 18 months.

The fourth basket, added due to government insistence and Russian pressure, deals vaguely with issues related to “counterterrorism and security governance, and also confidence-building measures”.

In all previously held diplomatic rounds – from Geneva I to Vienna to Astana – Damascus has framed the war in Syria as a fight against “terror”, but analysts say the inclusion of “anti-terrorism” as a central and equally weighted topic of discussion could sideline momentum towards a political solution.

Further complicating matters are the commonalities between the UN-led process and a separate Russian-led track in the Kazakh capital of Astana. While the Geneva track addressed “internal and external conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism”, de Mistura said, all “immediate operational counterterrorism issues” would be dealt with in Astana on March 14.

He urged parties in Astana to “do everything possible” to address confidence-building measures, such as the release of arbitrarily detained persons and the assurance of humanitarian access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas of Syria. Both were key opposition demands in Geneva.

“What’s happening in Astana was basically a way to steer and reshape Geneva – not necessarily replace it, but to make it a Russian-led process,” Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told Al Jazeera. “And I think, to a large degree, they’ve succeeded.”

A ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey late last year has succeeded in reducing levels of violence across the country, but fighting still persists in many areas [File: EPA]

Since the last round of UN-led talks, Russian military intervention has helped to shift the tide of the war in Assad’s favour, culminating in the government capture of Aleppo in late December. Since then, Moscow has helped to forge a fragile nationwide ceasefire.

While de Mistura reiterated several times that the Geneva and Astana tracks were “two hands working together”, Russian influence at the Geneva talks was clear.

“Terrorism is a priority. The fight against terrorism is a priority and it should be on the agenda,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said shortly after arriving in Geneva.

Days later, at the final ceremony, both de Mistura and the HNC had changed their stance by accepting the additional basket.

De Mistura created an opportunity for the regime to change the conversation, to play with time and to negotiate about negotiations and not about political transition.

Omar Kouch, political analyst

“The addition of a terrorism basket in Geneva is dangerous,” writer and political analyst Omar Kouch told Al Jazeera, noting that it could derail the push for political transition. “De Mistura created an opportunity for the regime to change the conversation, to play with time and to negotiate about negotiations and not about political transition.”

Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North African director at the Eurasia Group, said the negotiating framework, which entails that all four baskets are discussed concurrently, is “conducive” to bringing the government to the table.

“The structure prevents the government from claiming there is no point in having political discussions before counterterrorism talks. They don’t have that excuse any more,” he told Al Jazeera.

READ MORE: Syrian women demand justice for detainees

The muddled, overlapping diplomatic agenda will likely be further complicated by the narrowing priorities of key international players and the shifting trajectory of the war.

“Russia’s approach is problematic, as is the approach of the US, Turkey and Jordan,” Hassan said. “None of them is seizing the opportunity to steer the conflict in a less bloody direction. Instead, they are all focused on their own narrow goals.”

Jordan, a key backer of rebels in Syria’s south, has shifted its strategy over the past year after a series of deadly attacks linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS). Rumours of increased contact between Amman and the Syrian government, in addition to the presence of Jordanian representatives at the Russian-led talks in Astana last month, suggest that Amman is tapering its agenda across the border to protect against domestic threats.

The United States and Turkey, on the other hand, are focused on making “quick, tactical gains on the ground, instead of investing in long-term stability”, Hassan said.

Once a leading backer of the war to oust Assad, Ankara’s priorities have narrowed since last summer’s attempted coup to a primary focus on pushing armed Kurdish groups and ISIL back from its border. This shift has been accompanied by a growing rapprochement with Moscow; the two powers cobbled together a shaky truce and have worked to consolidate the ceasefire through meetings in Astana. On Friday, Putin hosted Erdoganin Moscow, where the two leaders congratulated each other on their “exceptional cooperation” in Syria and reaffirmed their commitment to reaching a settlement.

Turkish troops, with the help of allied Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters, now control a large swath of territory inside Syria, and Damascus is not at all happy about it. In a letter to the UN on Friday, Syria’s foreign ministry reiterated its calls on Ankara to withdraw its troops, accusing it of “supporting terrorism”.

Further complicating matters, Turkish troops and FSA fighters have increasingly clashed with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a key ally in the US-led coalition fighting ISIL.

The US has remained largely absent on the political level in Syria since Donald Trumpassumed the presidency, but on the ground, the Pentagon announced this week that it was deploying hundreds of additional troops to Syria as part of a push to retake ISIL’s self-declared capital of Raqqa.

A sizeable portion of those troops are now serving as a buffer force between the FSA and the SDF in the northeastern city of Manbij, as the race for Raqqa threatens to pull the two NATO allies into open conflict.

“The narrative on the ground has fundamentally shifted more permanently towards a focus on confronting terrorism,” Kamel said. “The challenge now is whether these new dynamics can be integrated into the political process. If not, then bit by bit the negotiators in Geneva will become irrelevant and things will head further towards the Astana project, which means less politics, less concessions and more military.”

Source: Al Jazeera

Puntland: Teetering on the edge of famine

Thousands of people are displaced as drought leads to malnutrition and an outbreak of water-borne diseases.

Ahmed Osman and his son Mohamed, seek medical care for Mohamed in Duho, where a small clinic is serving pastoralist families affected by malnutrition [Ashley Hamer/Al Jazeera]


Puntland, Somalia – Ahmed Osman, 34, gathered his tiny son into his arms and walked for three hours to reach the nearest medical centre in Dhudo village in Puntland, a semi-autonomous region of Somalia.

His three-year-old son, Mohamed, was desperately frail. He had been suffering from fever, vomiting and acute diarrhoea for eight days.

“My wife and three other children are behind in our camp with the surviving goats. I am the only one who could carry the baby all this way,” he told Al Jazeera.

The clinic in Dhudo is a small local government facility supported by aid group Save the Children. Nurse Bahija Abdullahi says she has been receiving two to three children a day since January. They are coming from makeshift pastoralist settlements scattered across the area, she explains.

The diarrhoea and fever has taken a toll on Mohamed’s health. Abdullahi can offer him oral rehydration salts and sachets of high-calorie peanut paste, but she doesn’t have the resources to treat cases of critical malnutrition like his.

Such children can be referred only to three hospitals in all of Puntland – Garowe, Bosaso and Galkayo – each hundreds of kilometres apart.

Osman is a nomadic pastoralist whose family has raised sheep, goats and camel in the arid Nugaal district in southern Puntland for generations.

Erratic rainfall

However, more than two years of protracted drought and erratic rainfall have killed off most of his animals, separated his family and driven him further from his native place than he has ever needed to travel.

Swaths of Somalia are once again on the edge of famine. On Sunday, Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire announced the deaths from starvation of 110 people in 48 hours in the country’s south-west.

It is six years since Somalia’s last famine killed some 260,000 people.

Now, nearly 6.2 million people – more than half the population – face acute food and water shortages and almost three million are going hungry.

“In my whole life in Somalia I have never seen so many dead livestock,” says Mowlid Mudan, communications officer for Save the Children, one of the few organisations working in Puntland.

READ MORE: Antonio Guterres raises alarm as hunger crisis worsens

“Sixty percent of our population relies on livestock to live and the rest are somehow connected. These families have lost every single animal. Even their camels. When the camels start to die you know that people will be next.”

Osman is not the only one who has headed for Dhudo. The village is built around the only substantial water source within a 75km radius: currently a diminishing green rivulet which pools in a rocky gully.

Bandar Bayla, the eastern district alongside the Indian Ocean where Dhudo lies, saw fleeting showers in late 2016.

Word spread and pastoralists travelled from as far as neighbouring Ethiopia in search of pasture for their herds.

But there has been no more rain.

Somalia is only fed by two perennial rivers – the Juba and the Shabelle – neither of which enter Puntland.

Carcasses litter the landscape; small heaps of bones, shrivelled skin and fur. Countless sheep and goats huddle together in the sand and die where they lay.

Abdirisak Farah, 40, brought his herd 200km from Nugaal to Bandar Bayla. Of his 500 animals, fewer than 100 survive.

“We had to leave our wives and children behind in villages because they are not strong enough to make this journey on foot,” says Farah.

“I have never had to move so far to find pasture.”

State of disaster

Some 250km further inland, ragged displacement camps are expanding on the fringes of towns as destitute nomads are forced out of the wilderness to seek assistance.

Shaxade, off the main road between the hubs of Garowe and Qardho, is currently home to dozens of women and children whose adult male relatives left for the coast with their herds two months ago.

“We are here because we have lost almost everything. We were feeding cardboard and water to our animals,” says Star Abdullahi, a mother of six.

“We are depending on the host community for food and the clinic nearby for the weakest ones. Our situation is bad but at least we are a group of women protecting each other. In the bush we were scattered and alone. This is safer for us.”

READ MORE: Famine stalks Somalia again

Somalia elected a new president in February following a drawn-out political process.

Ten days into his term, President Abdullahi Mohamed Farmajo declared a drought-induced state of disaster across the country, and a national drought response team was established.

Puntland is a territory that identifies as semi-autonomous – unlike breakaway Somaliland in the far north – and wishes to remain part of a federal Somalia.

Access for humanitarian aid across much of South Central Somalia remains impossible because the country is still fighting the armed group al-Shabab.

Puntland, where drought has also ravaged the countryside, however, considers itself more stable. Local leaders say they have been sounding the alarm for more than a year to little effect.

“We are in a pre-famine situation and the time to act is now,” says regional Environment Minister Ali Abdullahi Warsame at his office in Garowe.

“We are already reporting deaths by hunger and because people are drinking contaminated water … The entire economy is collapsing … But 95 percent of Puntland is accessible, unlike the south. Our government has meagre resources but is ready to assist the NGOs, but all eyes are on Mogadishu [Somalia’s capital] and the political transition.”

International support

According to Warsame, Puntland’s government raised more than $1m for drought relief in November, with large contributions from the diaspora and local door-to-door collections.

“We only need very basic food, sanitation and shelter items but we need them urgently in the next three weeks … The bulk of our response has been community-led. The international support is a drop in the ocean. It never comes at the right time,” he said.

At of the start of the year, international NGOs and the UN requested some $825m from donors during the first half of 2017 to prevent famine in Somalia.

IN PICTURES: Drought in Somalia – Time is Running Out

Funds are coming in at a faster rate than in 2011 and humanitarian agencies now have a stronger presence on the ground, according to Julien Navier, spokesperson for the UN’s refugee agency.

Nevertheless, competing catastrophes in South Sudan, Yemen and the Lake Chad basin mean that what is desperately needed to halt an avoidable tragedy may not materialise in time.

Sahara Mohamed has brought her three children to a small clinic in Yaka village, close to the Shaxade displacement site. Her husband took their surviving goats to the coast two months ago.

She cradles her two-year-old, who is barely conscious, while her three-year-old lies limp on the cot beside her. Her oldest son sits shivering on the edge of the cot, an intravenous (IV) tube inserted under the skin of his small hand. Nurses believe he is suffering from pneumonia.

“Children are getting sick because they are weak but they don’t have to be,” says Mudan. “You can see this is preventable if we move fast.”

Source: Al Jazeera News

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