Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 26 April 2019

Mattis signs Syria exit order, as Turkey-backed rebels prepare for assault

The US withdrawal could begin in weeks, spelling disaster for Washington's Kurdish allies who are scrambling to find alternatives to American support

President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis attend the 119th Army-Navy football game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Reuters
President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis attend the 119th Army-Navy football game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Reuters

Outgoing US Defence Secretary James Mattis has signed an order withdrawing US forces from Syria, as Ankara-backed Syrian rebel fighters and Turkish troops massed near a Kurdish-held town in northern Syria.

Meanwhile, a delegation representing Syria’s Kurds has arrived in Moscow where they are scheduled to meet with Russian foreign ministry officials on Monday to discuss a possible plan to stop a Turkish offensive on the town of Manbij, sources close to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) told The National.

On the ground in Syria, representatives of the US-led coalition visited the town of Manbij on Monday, following a Turkish build up in areas around the town, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Differences over Syria have been a long time source of tension between Washington and Ankara. The US has backed the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) in the fight against ISIS, but Turkey sees the militia as a terrorist organisation tied to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The town of Manbij has been one area of friction between the US and Turkey, which has vowed to clear the area of the YPG. The Nato allies reached an agreement in June for the YPG to leave but Turkey says its implementation has been delayed.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier this month that Turkish forces would enter the town if the United States does not remove the Kurdish fighters.

A decision by US President Donald Trump to withdraw his troops from Syria has emboldened Turkey to press-ahead with plans to clear Manbij of Kurdish forces and now preparations are being put in place to launch a battle once US troops withdraw.

On Monday, Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency and the SOHR reported that Turkey-backed Syrian forces had moved closer to Manbij, equipped with heavy weapons and armoured vehicles.

Convoys of Turkish tanks, artillery and troops have been crossing the Turkish border into areas controlled by allied rebel groups and heading to the front lines of Manbij since Saturday evening.

Youssef Hammoud, a spokesman for the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army told The National on Monday that Syrian rebel fighters in areas on the frontlines with Manbij are on alert and ready for a potential assault.

He said up to 15,000 Syrian fighters trained in Turkey are ready to take part in the operation.

He said that rebels have been equipped with the necessary weapons and a “number of measures,” have been taken in preparation for a battle, including logistical preparations and monitoring of frontlines.

Mr Hammoud said that fighters of the Syrian National Army are now waiting for orders from Turkish command and explained that a timeline for the offensive is contingent on agreements between Ankara and Washington.

He also said that the offensive would not begin until US troops withdraw from Syria.

American forces are still stationed in and around the town of Manbij. The US-backed Manbij Military Council, a Kurdish-led group affiliated with the YPG, posted videos on their Facebook page on Sunday purporting to show US patrols in the area.

US officials have cautioned against a timeline for a Syria exit but the withdrawal could begin in weeks now that the order to pull-out troops has been signed. Mr Trump said on Sunday that the exit will be “slow” and “highly coordinated” with Turkey.

On Monday, Mr Trump said that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had informed him “that he will eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria.”

“He [Erdogan] is a man who can do it plus, Turkey is right “next door.” Our troops are coming home!” Mr Trump said on Twitter.

Separately, sources close to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) told The National that they are not authorized to disclose the details of talks in Moscow until an agreement is reached.

Russia is widely seen as the only actor capable of protecting Kurdish forces in Syria from a Turkish assault after the US withdraws its forces. It could act as a mediator between the Kurds and Damascus, allowing for an agreement that would see the deployment of Syrian troops in front-lines in Manbij and areas east of the Euphrates River.

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Updated: December 24, 2018 08:14 PM

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