Syrian army says it has entered Manbij after appeal from Kurdish fighters threatened by Turkey
YPG fighters appealed for Syrian government forces to act after being abandoned by the US
Syria's army said on Friday that its troops had entered the Kurdish-held town of Manbij, where Turkey has been threatening an offensive.
The move was announced on state television soon after Syrian Kurdish fighters appealed for the government's help to avert an attack by Turkish-backed forces that have been positioning themselves around the town near the Turkey-Syria border.
The US-led military operation to defeat ISIS, Inherent Resolve, said the Syrian army had not entered the city itself.
"Despite incorrect information about changes to military forces in the city of Manbij, Syria, (Inherent Resolve) has seen no indication that these claims are true. We call on everyone to respect the integrity of Manbij and the safety of its citizens," it said on its Twitter account.
The Kurdish forces were left exposed by President Donald Trump's sudden decision last week to withdraw American troops from northern Syria. The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) were the main element of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces alliance fighting against ISIS.
"We invite the Syrian government forces to assert control over the areas our forces have withdrawn from, particularly Manbij, and to protect these areas against a Turkish invasion," the YPG statement said.
Ankara sees the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party that has waged an insurgency in Turkey for decades, and has threatened to drive the militia from the areas along its border with Syria.
But a senior Syrian Kurdish official said Syrian government troops had arrived at the front lines of the flash-point town of Manbij but had not taken over the town and that US troops based in Manbij had not withdrawn.
Ilham Ahmed told Associated Press an agreement was being worked out with the Russians and the Syrian government that in case of a full US withdrawal, government troops would take over.
"The aim is to ward off a Turkish offensive," Mr Ahmed said.
He said Kurdish militia remain inside the town.
According to Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor, the government forces were deployed "along the contact lines between the Turks and the forces of the [SDF-run] Military Council starting from Euphrates River, north-west of Manbij all the way to Dadad and Arimeh”.
Manbij has been a particular point of friction between the US and Turkey. The Nato allies reached an agreement in June for the YPG to leave the town but Turkey says its implementation has been delayed.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned earlier this month that Turkish forces would enter the town if the US did not remove the Kurdish fighters. After the Syrian announcement on Friday, the Turkish defence ministry said the YPG "has no right or power to make a statement on behalf of the local people and invite any other elements” to the area.
US Central Command spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Earl Brown on Friday insisted the American forces would continue to work with theKurdish fighters.
"Our mission has not changed. We will continue to support our coalition partners, while also conducting a deliberate and controlled withdrawal of forces, while taking all measures possible to ensure our troops' safety and that of our partners on the ground," he told AFP.
A Syrian army spokesman said the national flag had been raised in Manbij, re-establishing government control of the town after six years as an armed uprising against Bashar Al Assad that began in 2011 peters out.
Russia, a staunch ally of Mr Al Assad, immediately welcomed the return of Kurdish territories to government control.
"This is a positive trend," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
A delegation of Syrian Kurds had visited Moscow on Monday for talks on a possible plan to stop a Turkish offensive on Manbij, sources close to the SDF had told The National.
A Turkish delegation comprising Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Defence Minister Hulusi Akar was expected in Moscow on Saturday to discuss the pullout of US troops from Syria. The talks will allow the two sides to “bring complete clarity and synchronise actions” going forward, Mr Peskov said.
The Russian foreign ministry this week called for all territory with a US troop presence to be returned to Mr Al Assad's control.
Russia, Turkey, a supporter of opposition groups, and Iran, another Assad ally, are joint sponsors of a Syrian peace initiative known as the Astana Process, which was launched in the Kazakh capital in January 2017. Pro-Assad forces have meanwhile cornered most rebel groups in the country in the north-western province of Idlib through a series of surrender agreements. At the same time, ISIS has been driven out of all the territory it once held in Syria, apart from a small area on the Iraq, in separate offensives by the SDF and Russian-backed government forces.
Updated: December 29, 2018 08:48 AM