The US has told Turkey that the only target for the US-led coalition forces in Syria is Islamic State (Isis) militants and not the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which recently freed Manbij in Aleppo from the militants.
Turkey, which considers Kurdish fighters allied to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) as terrorists, has reportedly threatened to attack the SDF forces in Manbij after Turkish troops seize control of al-Bab.
The US, which recognises the PKK as a terror group but regards the People's Protection Units (YPG) as a crucial partner in fighting IS (Daesh) in Syria, clarified its stand on the ongoing Syrian conflict on Saturday (14 January).
Acting US Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs, Elissa Slotkin, told reporters in Washington that the coalition forces do not target areas where there is no Isis presence. "We are all about hitting Isis where there is Isis. If there's no Isis, that's not our mandate," Slotkin said, apparently in response to Turkey's plans of attacking the SDF in Manbij.
"So that is an important distinction. We have always made it in any kind of conversation we've been having with any ally on Syria," she said. Further, denying Turkish claims that the coalition has declined to provide support to the Turks in Syria's al-Bab if they attack Manbij, the official said talks on the issue were underway.
"But I am not aware of any conditionality, any kind of quid-pro-quo. We are having those conversations and there is support that's being provided. Currently, liaison teams are working with the Turks every day.
"So obviously they're having conversations about al-Bab, about strategy and approach. We have provided some ISR [Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] support on al-Bab. We have, in areas north of there, provided ground forces and the whole suite of air support.
"So those are the kinds of things that we're talking about sort of on an hourly basis with the Turks," Slotkin said.
Explaining the issue, Nicholas Heras, a Washington-based Middle East researcher at the Centre for New American Security, told ARA News that Manbij is a strategic location in the anti-Isis campaign in Raqqa. If Turkey-backed Syrian rebels gain control of Manbij, they can launch an assault on Raqqa, depriving the SDF forces of the opportunity, he said.
"The Turkish military wants the United States to send special forces and advisers to embed with its proxy Syrian groups. The US wants to see whether the Turkish military can execute the operation on al-Bab as the primary military actor.
"The Turks are having grave difficulties because Turkish airpower and advisers do not have the same high level of coordination with their Syrian proxies as the US military has with the [Kurdish-led] SDF," Heras said, adding that Turkey, thus, wants the US to provide additional support.
"The Turks believe that the US military is their silver bullet to vanquish Isis in al-Bab, which is the key to solidifying a future safe zone in northern Syria that is controlled by Turkey. There are high stakes for the Turks in al-Bab," he added.