US Defence Secretary backs both Turkey and SDF to close ISIS border pocket

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ISIS militants at Turkish border, forcing civilians to return back to Syrian territory held by the group. File photo

ARA News

KOBANE – US Defense Secretary Ash Carter met with the Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss the ongoing operations against ISIS in the Manbij pocket on the Syrian-Turkish border. In a public statement, Carter said he supports both the Turks and the Kurdish-Arab coalition of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to defeat ISIS in Manbij.

According to the Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook, Carter emphasized “Turkey’s important role in the Counter-ISIS Coalition, including Turkey’s increased border security efforts, and the two leaders discussed their countries’ cooperation on countering terrorism.”

“In addition, Secretary Carter thanked Minister Işık for Turkey’s efforts to address irregular migration to Europe and its ongoing commitment to Afghanistan’s security.

The 98-kilometer-long border area in Aleppo’s countryside is called the Manbij pocket, and is used by the Islamic State group (ISIS) to transport foreign fighters from Turkey to Syria, and to smuggle arm supplies to the de-facto ISIS capital of Raqqa, in northeastern Syria. Closing it down would make Europe and America safer, US and Kurdish officials have said.

“The operation to free Manbij is part of the Coalition-supported moderate Syrian opposition efforts to clear Da’esh from the Turkish border and the Mar’a line. The goal is to limit the flow of foreign fighters and minimize Da’esh’s threat to Turkey, the rest of Europe, and the United States,” the US-led international coalition said in a statement last week.

Turkey fears that the Syrian Kurds will try to control the pocket to unite the three cantons of Kobane, Afrin, and Jazira in northern Syria–where Kurds constitute a majority of the population.

In the meantime, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said that Turkey “will never allow a new formation on its border with Northern Syria,” reported the pro-Turkish government newspaper Daily Sabah on Tuesday.

However, the US says they will continue to work both with the Syrian Democratic Forces and Turkey-backed rebels, and respect Turkish concerns.

“Operations to envelope the town of Manbij also continue with the Syrian-Arab coalition forces, also enabled by us and coalition partners. That’s proceeding very satisfactorily,” Carter said in a statement Tuesday. “At the same time, we continue to work with the Turks on further efforts in the Manbij and Marae areas to control that critical border area. But the envelopment of the city of Manbij, which is important, proceeds apace there.”

While the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have completely surrounded Manbij, and are even taking villages in the direction of al-Bab, Turkish-backed rebels have been moving towards the al-Rai border crossing, after the ISIS siege on Azaz was lifted.

Moreover, the SDF-operations have blocked all ISIS supply roads near the Turkish border from the Manbij pocket to Raqqa.

“The U.S. strategy is to work with a wide range of armed opposition groups that are willing to prioritize the fight against ISIS,” Nicholas Heras, a Washington-based Middle East researcher at the Centre for a New American Security, told ARA News.

“The U.S. strategy against ISIS in Aleppo governorate, which includes Manbij, has a component that depends on the Marea Line to remain a shield wall against further ISIS gains toward Aleppo city. The SDF’s current offensive on Manbij is the spear aimed at the gut of ISIS in the governorate,” he added.

However, Turkey still plays a role in backing rebel groups in Azaz and Marea that fight ISIS. “In order for the Marea Line to hold, U.S.-vetted groups that receive U.S. military assistance need to coexist and coordinate with the Turkish-backed groups, and Turkey. Holding the Marea Line strong is still a primarily Turkish-run effort,” Heras told ARA News.

“That is why the U.S. military over time wants to expand its forces’ presence in Syria next around the Marea Line, to work directly with groups such as Liwa al-Mutasem and Liwa al-Hamza and others. This is to reduce the dependence on Turkey in this vital area. However for now Turkey is the power broker along the Marea Line,” he concluded.

Reporting by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg 

Source: ARA News 

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