US forces dis­pute Syria’s claim about Kurd-held town

Merced Sun-Star (Saturday) - - News - BY SARAH EL DEEB

Syria’s mil­i­tary said Fri­day it had en­tered the key Kur­dish-held town of Man­bij in an ap­par­ent deal with the Kurds, who are look­ing for new al­lies and pro­tec­tion against a threat­ened Turk­ish of­fen­sive as U.S. troops pre­pare to leave Syria.

Turkey and Amer­i­can troops pa­trolling the town de­nied there was any change of forces in the con­tested area, con­tra­dict­ing the Syr­i­ans and high­light­ing the po­ten­tial for chaos in the wake of last week’s sur­prise pro­nounce­ment by the United States that it was with­draw­ing its troops.

Since the U.S. an­nounce­ment, forces have been build­ing up around Man­bij and fur­ther east, ush­er­ing in new al­liances and rais­ing the chances for fric­tion. The Kurds’ in­vi­ta­tion to Syr­ian troops shows they’d rather let Syria’s Rus­sian- and Ira­nian-backed gov­ern­ment fill the void left by the Amer­i­cans, than face the prospect of be­ing over­whelmed by their top ri­val, Turkey.

Mean­while, a flurry of meet­ings is ex­pected in the com­ing days as all sides of the con­flict scram­ble to find ways to re­place the de­part­ing U.S. troops. They in­clude one Satur­day in Moscow, where Rus­sia will host top Turk­ish of­fi­cials in a pos­si­ble sign that the two sides could be work­ing on a deal to avert a Turk­ish of­fen­sive into Syria. Rus­sians of­fi­cials have said they ex­pect Syr­ian gov­ern­ment troops to re­place the U.S. troops when they with­draw.

Turkey con­sid­ers the U.S.-backed Kur­dish Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units, which now con­trols nearly 30 per­cent of Syria, a ter­ror­ist group linked to an in­sur­gency within its own borders. Kur­dish­con­trolled Man­bij has been at the cen­ter of ris­ing ten­sion be­tween the U.S. and Turkey.

There were con­flict­ing re­ports Fri­day on the lo­ca­tion of the Syr­ian troops, who said they had moved into Man­bij and raised the Syr­ian flag in the town. The Kur­dish mili­tia said it has in­vited the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment to take con­trol of Man­bij to pro­tect it against “a Turk­ish in­va­sion.”

But a Kur­dish of­fi­cial said the gov­ern­ment de­ploy­ment has so far been lim­ited to the front line with Turkey-backed fight­ers, based north and west Man­bij. And U.S. of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton said Syr­ian regime forces and some Rus­sian forces had moved a bit closer to the city and were largely south or south­west of the city. The of­fi­cials spoke anony­mously be­cause they were not au­tho­rized to dis­cuss the troop move­ments pub­licly.

The U.S.-led coali­tion said the an­nounce­ment that gov­ern­ment troops had en­tered the town was “in­cor­rect,” and called “on ev­ery­one to re­spect the in­tegrity of Man­bij and the safety of its cit­i­zens.”

Rus­sia and Iran, mean­while, wel­comed the Syr­ian an­nounce­ment. Krem­lin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called it a “pos­i­tive step” that could help sta­bi­lize the area. Iran hailed it as a “ma­jor step to­ward es­tab­lish­ing the gov­ern­ment’s au­thor­ity” over all of Syria. Rus­sia has sig­naled it ex­pects the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment to de­ploy where U.S. forces leave.

Turkey’s Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan said the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment move was “a psy­cho­log­i­cal act,” and the sit­u­a­tion in Man­bij was un­cer­tain. He spoke as Turkey-al­lied forces in Syria said they were for­ti­fy­ing their front line po­si­tions ahead of the pos­si­ble mil­i­tary of­fen­sive.

But Er­do­gan also noted that his coun­try’s goal is to oust the Kur­dish mili­tia from along his coun­try’s borders.

HUS­SEIN MALLA AP

U.S. troops pa­trol Man­bij, north Syria, in March. The U.S-led coali­tion de­nies that there have been changes to the mil­i­tary de­ploy­ment in the Kur­dish-held city, re­fut­ing claims by the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment of Bashar al-As­sad.

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