MANBIJ, Syria — It’s a weird moment, even by Middle East standards: American military commanders, nearly victorious against the Islamic State, are standing at a hilltop observation post here discussing harassing fire on their Syrian Kurdish partners — from a rebel force that is backed by Turkey, our NATO ally.
America and Turkey have been moving in slow motion toward this collision since the U.S. decided to destroy the Islamic State three and a half years ago. The only Syrian fighters able to do the job were the Kurds, who dubbed themselves the Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey was furious, claiming that the Kurdish group was “terrorist.” But Ankara could never offer a credible alternative to destroy the Islamic State, so the U.S. pushed on.
How can the U.S. untangle this mess, so it can finish the job against the Islamic State? America needs “dialogue” and “de-escalation” quickly with Turkey, explains Lt. Gen. Paul Funk, the commander of U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq. The Turkish distraction is “not helpful,” he says, because it makes the U.S. and its partners “look into different directions when our focus should be a laser beam on ISIS.” The campaign against the Islamic State is “slowing down,” he warns, and the lull could “allow these people to escape” into Turkey and then to Europe.
Funk speaks to reporters here at an outpost manned by the SDF. A mile and a half west, you can see the berm that marks the forward position of the Turkish-backed rebels. Turkey itself is about 16 miles north. About 40 miles west is the Kurdish zone called Afrin, which Turkish warplanes and artillery have been attacking since late last month.
U.S. Special Operation Forces have done wonders here, working with the SDF to shatter the Islamic State’s control of eastern Syria. But we’re nearing the end of what military power can do. The next step requires diplomacy. It’s encouraging that national security adviser H.R. McMaster is heading to Ankara this weekend. He would be wise to treat the crisis with Turkey as an opportunity — and start the quiet discussions that could lead to an eventual reconciliation of Turkish and American interests.
Manbij illustrates how the battle against the Islamic State was turned by the U.S. and its SDF partners — and what post-Islamic State recovery looks like. The Kurdish-led forces surged across the Euphrates in May 2016 and drove the Islamic State from the city, which had been a key transit point for foreign fighters. The SDF suffered about 300 killed and roughly 1,000 wounded.
The sidewalks of Jalla Street in the center of town were so crowded with shoppers Wednesday that it was easier to walk in the road. In a little stall selling men’s cologne, Fawaz al-Khannem remembers that the favorite scent of Islamic State fighters was a musky fragrance called “Sultan.” Inside the covered market, where the Islamic State once built car bombs, the shops are packed. Women are buying colorful dresses, sparkling with sequins, and ripped jeans.
Adnan al-Jameel, who sells gold jewelry in a small shop in the market, says business has slowed a bit recently because of the rumbling from Turkey. He hopes the Americans stay, despite Turkish threats. Like most people I met here, he seems to accept that Manbij owes its new freedom to the Kurdish-led forces who cleared the town and now steer its governance.
Perhaps the brightest spot in this liberated town is a girl’s school, where students have returned after years in hiding from the Islamic State. Interrupted in the middle of French class, high school seniors talk animatedly about their plans. They’re wearing makeup and vibrant clothes; a girl named Aisha is wearing a pink hijab.
Nothing in the Middle East is ever precisely what it appears. Each victory opens the door to a new problem, but no obstacle is quite as insurmountable as the bellicose rhetoric suggests.
On Wednesday, as Turkish-backed forces were firing at an SDF checkpoint, scores of trucks were queued up to cross from Manbij into the Turkish-controlled zone. Heading into town, there was a traffic jam of hundreds of Kurdish militants returning from a demonstration in Afrin; they had traversed a zone controlled by the Syrian regime, supposedly the Kurds’ enemy. And as Turkish politicians were snarling at America, the Turkish and U.S. militaries continued their daily liaison.
Syrian Kurdish forces have been a brave partner for America, but also an inconvenient one. Abandoning them would be a bad mistake, but it would also be wrong to let the problems so apparent here to keep festering. The U.S. military did its job in Syria. Now it’s time for diplomacy.
David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.