From his command post in Turkey, near the front line in northern Syria, Abu Shamsi can look through enemy territory to his uncle’s village, just across the wide churn of the Euphrates river. A little further on lies Manbij, his own home town.
Like the other men in his brigade of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), he has not been home for years. Manbij is held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which they despise with passion.
“They’re as bad as Isis,” he grumbled. The feeling is mutual. The SDF regularly makes the same claim about the FSA.
Their loathing brought America and its Nato ally, Turkey, close to conflict on this dangerous border last week.
The Pentagon has funded and armed both groups in the past but now supports just the SDF, which played a crucial role in defeating Isis this year.
Turkey, which sees the SDF as a Kurdish terrorist organisation, backs the FSA. Last Sunday, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said he would launch a military operation into northern Syria to push the SDF back from Turkey’s southern border. Proxy forces such as Abu Shamsi’s were told their role would be to clear and hold the area with the Turkish army.
There was one glaring problem: there were US soldiers and bases in the target area. A Turkish-backed advance into SDF territory would pit two Nato allies against each other.
A frenetic round of diplomacy between Ankara and Washington last week appears to have stayed a Turkish onslaught, but only for the time being.
“I think a Turkish operation is inevitable if the current status quo continues,” said Omer Ozkizilcik of Seta, a Turkish pro-government think tank.
“Fundamentally for Turkey the situation on the ground is unacceptable, and Washington may not be able to deliver on its promises to change that.”
Ankara sees the SDF as no more than a face of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed Kurdish group in Turkey and Iraq with Marxist-Leninist roots that has menaced the Turkish state for decades and is classified by the US and EU as a terror organisation.
Erdogan believes the presence of the SDF on Turkey’s border is a security risk that must be eliminated. Only a desire to avoid fighting the Americans, diplomats say, has held him back from launching an attack.
Though diplomacy has triumphed for the moment, a Turkish-backed offensive against the SDF seems unavoidable. Fundamental divisions that plague US-Turkish relations — including the purchase by Ankara of an advanced Russian missile system in defiance of Washington — have still not been resolved.
The US, committed to keeping diplomacy going, appears to be compromising on a small “safe zone” a few miles wide in SDF territory that would allow Turkishbacked forces to patrol selected areas. But Turkey has consistently said that it wants a zone that extends far into Kurdish-Syrian lands, taking in big cities where there are many SDF soldiers and anti-Turkish sentiment is strong.
“It is unworkable,” said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “You’re going to have problems implementing it. The plan becomes a mechanism for Turkish pressure to get more out of the concessions. It’s the US that’s on the defensive here … I think this thing will blow up in our faces.”
While Washington and Ankara negotiate, the rebels are spoiling for a fight. Twice now, Abu Shamsi has been told by his Turkish backers to get ready for war.
“I called the men together and told them we’re going to fight,” he said. “But it didn’t happen yet.”
He says his group are well-meaning fighters who want to return home. But the SDF points to evidence of former Isis members in the FSA, and of hardline Islamist beliefs. A video surfaced last year showing the mutilated body of a female Kurdish fighter surrounded by jeering FSA rebels.
The rebels, however, say the SDF is led by Kurdish terrorists. They point to evidence — corroborated by human rights organisations — of the SDF recruiting child soldiers and restricting some non-Kurds from returning to their homes.
But, although there are obvious links to the PKK, there are large numbers of non-Kurdish Arabs in the SDF ranks who say they are only protecting their homes.
“I don’t care that [my commanders] are Kurdish,” a young Arab SDF fighter told The Sunday Times a year ago in Syria. “I fight with them because they’re strong.”