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