Despite the fact that President Trump recently considered withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria, the United States— along with its allies the United Kingdom and France— are doubling down and expanding their military presence in Northeastern Syria by establishing new military bases near the town of Manbij. Reports of the bases first broke last month, but were recently confirmed by Reuters. The bases are believed to be part of a wider effort by the U.S./U.K./France coalition to aid its military proxy force in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in its “resistance” to the Turkish government.
Turkey has long maintained that the SDF, which is largely composed of members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), are terrorists. The U.S. announcement earlier this year that they would be using the SDF to build a “border force” subsequently led Turkey to invade parts of Northern Syria previously controlled by the SDF with help from its own proxy force in Syria, the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
After Turkey took control of Afrin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he was considering removing YPG/SDF forces from Manbij as well, prompting the coalition forces to consolidate their positions. With the coalition now beefing up its military presence to prevent Turkey from encroaching further, Syria is set to become a new sore point in Turkey’s relationship with NATO and the West.
According to reports, the military bases are located throughout the Manbij region, with the U.S. having at least two bases while the French are constructing one. The U.K. does not have its own base, but its soldiers are known to be present in the area and to work with U.S. and French troops stationed in Manbij.
Helil Bozi, the commander of the Military Council of Manbij of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), told Sputnik that “the U.S. has deployed its Special Forces units near the Sajur River thereby setting a red line the crossing of which will be seen by the [U.S.-led] coalition forces as an attack and will prompt retaliatory actions,” noting that the increase in the coalition’s military presence was a direct result of Turkey’s prior statements regarding Manbij.
Though locals have claimed that the presence of the coalition members of the military are aimed at Turkey, they are also likely to prevent Syrian government forces from retaking the area. Now that the Syrian government has successfully removed terrorist groups from Damascus as well as other key parts of the country, there has been speculation that the Syrian military would turn its focus to areas of the country occupied by foreign powers.
Indeed, the Syrian government is very interested in recuperating the area currently occupied by the coalition and nominally controlled by the Kurds as it holds 95% of the entire country’s oil and gas potential. Under Kurdish leadership, an unknown U.S. company is already extracting and selling oil in the region, thus making it unlikely that the U.S. would willingly leave the area. The U.S. is also unlikely to leave its investment in the SDF behind, having recently allocated $550 million to arm and train the group over the next year.
In addition, the area also boasts the country’s largest fresh water reservoirs and over 60% of its agricultural land, making it an invaluable bargaining chip in determining the future of Syria, a future that coalition powers hope will remove the current Syrian government from power and replace it with a more Western-friendly government.
However, the aims of the coalition appear directed more toward partition than regime change. The U.S. has long sought to divide Syria in order to take control of the country’s resource rich Northeast and to isolate the Syrian government and, by extension, its regional allies such as Iran.
Though the U.S. has played on the hopes of Kurdish nationalists, it has long established plans for an authoritarian Wahhabist enclave in Northeastern Syria according to a leaked Defense Intelligence Agency document from 2012 and, more recently, courting the Saudis to “rebuild” the area. Furthermore, the fact that the SDF includes militias composed of “retrained” ISIS fighters also underscores that the coalition is more interested in controlling the region than aiding a Kurdish nationalism project.
Though advertised as an effort to “protect” the Kurds, the establishment of new American and French military bases in Northern Syria appear to serve as protection of the coalition’s regional ambitions and plans for the region.