US Stryker Deployment to Manbij, Syria Appears to Have Been a Blocking Move

Those big armored fighting vehicles are not inconspicuous—and that appears to have been the point.

DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Last weekend, US Stryker armored fighting vehicles appeared seemingly out of nowhere in Syria and descended onto the Kurdish-held town of Manbij. Their arrival was anything but inconspicuous, as the convoy of multiple Strykers, in various configurations, along with tricked-out Humvees rolled across the Euphrates river in broad daylight, with giant American flags whipping in the air above them. After we reported on the story, the vehicles appeared to have made it to Manbij, and proceeded to move all around the vicinity of the city and its outlying villages, making their presence known. For US special operations teams, who have kept an incredibly low profile in the war-torn country for a couple years now, the show of force was something totally new, and it was clearly a signal to America's enemies and friends alike.

The Pentagon, commenting on the arrival of the vehicles in northern Syria, stated that the convoy was a "visible symbol that the enemy is cleared out of Manbij." The spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve also tweeted the reasoning behind the Strykers' high-profile arrival in the flashpoint city: 

As we discussed this weekend, Manbij could turn into a standoff between US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces which are dominated by Kurdish fighters aligned with the PKK—Turkey's bitter enemy—and Turkish-backed forces that have sacked the city of al Bab to the west. Turkey has since said made it clear that they are ready to push east toward the ISIS stronghold of al Raqqa. The only problem is that Turkey has also stated that all Kurdish forces need to retreat east of the Euphrates River as this was one of the key goals of Operation Euphrates Shield. This operation, launched by Turkey last summer and ongoing to this very day, is aimed at ISIS as well as pushing back Kurdish forces from the towns they had seized west of the Euphrates during bloody battles with Islamic State fighters. Manbij is one of these cities. Kurdish fighters sacked it last August, something that the Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman also underlined in a tweet:

So basically America's flag-waving increase in visibility around Manbij, as well as their upgrade in armor that has rumbled its way all around the town and its nearby villages, seems to serve a couple purposes. First off, it tells Turkish, Syrian and Russian forces that Americans are operating openly in the strategically located city and by traveling all around its outskirts in a blazon manner, literally acting as bait, they have shown that ISIS has been neutralized in the area. As such, any attack on Kurdish or US forces by Turkish, Syrian or Russian-backed forces could not be "confused" for one against ISIS. As such, there is no excuse for Russian or Syrian jets to bomb locations in or around the city, and no reason for Syrian forces to be there at all at this time. The operation also serves as a warning to Turkey in particular, that any move against the town could not only endanger US forces, but it would see two NATO allies pitted against one another.

The thing is that the main highway that linked al Bab to al Raqqa was blocked by Syrian troops recently, leaving Turkey with few options to easily access the Islamic State stronghold. The road through Manbij is one of a handful left that can take Turkish-backed forces from al Bab to al Raqqa in a round-about way, and the others go through towns that are also held by Kurdish and SDF forces. This has pushed Turkish forces and their proxies in a corner of sorts.

In yet another tweet made over the weekend, the OIR spokesman said something somewhat peculiar:

It could be that the US plans to drastically increase its presence in Manbij so that Kurdish YPG rebels could drastically decrease their presence there, and thus making it possible for Turkish troops to traverse the city on their way to al Raqqa without a major battle erupting. So what seems to be happening here is that the US has executed a fairly brilliant but also risky play—a grand blocking maneuver of sorts. The up-armored vehicles and Strykers are there because of the increased risk to US soldiers for taking on a high profile and to make a big footprint in the sand. Now it seems by the tweet above that the US may open the road through the city to Turkish soldiers if Americans are in control of that road and Kurdish fighters are largely playing a secondary support role, if they have not vacated the city in total. Basically it forces all sides to concentrate on taking out ISIS, not on slugging it out amongst themselves.  

DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

In the end, if this proves to the US strategy in play, it puts the most pressure on Islamic State because it keeps Turkey in the game, as well as Syria, Russia and the US and its allies, and it bypasses a potential all-out battle between the Kurds and the Turkish military and their proxies. The risk comes into play in that now US troops have taken up a much heavier rolel in the stability of at least one city in Syria, and they also have a much higher profile in the region. And they may be the thin green line that stands between a full-out brawl between Turkish and Kurdish forces. Considering the US is a NATO ally of Turkey, if anything goes wrong the repercussions could be massive on a geopolitical scale. 

The other alternative is that the US does not open up Manbij or another route that runs through a Kurdish-controlled town to Turkey, although doing so could have even worse repercussions, and a higher probability of those repercussions actually occurring. Turkey could just decide to push through anyway, or take another route from the Turkish-Syrian border in the western part of county, which is largely controlled by the Kurds and SDF as well. Turkey could also be forced into Assad's arms, and could work out a deal with him and Russia to open up access to al Raqqa. Such a move would not be a welcome outcome for the US which has maintained an anti-Assad policy since the Syrian civil war began. 

We will have to wait and see what happens next, but there is a good chance that Turkey and the US military are talking right now about what it would take for their forces and proxy fighters to move through Kurdish territory without shots being fired. Above all else, the Strykers' appearance in Syria signal a new bolder policy in the region, one that we have seen other hints of since President Trump was inaugurated six weeks ago. 

UPDATE: 3:35pm PST- It seems that these are "double V-hulled" Strykers, giving them similar resistance to IEDs as MRAPs, and they do indeed belong to the 75th Ranger Regiment.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com