Iranian- and Russian-backed forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters are building up their military presence near the Syrian town of Manbij this week, a focal point of post-U.S. troops’ pullout plans.
The Associated Press (AP) reported that on Friday, the U.S.-allied Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) “invited [Assad] government troops to take control of the flashpoint northern town of Manbij to prevent a Turkish attack.”
Now, “Syria’s military says it has taken control the flash-point Kurdish-held town of Manbij, where Turkey has threatened offensive,” the AP added in a different article.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, quickly welcomed the move, calling it a “positive step” that could help stabilize the region.
“The Syrian government has said it welcomes the Kurdish group returning under its authority. But government officials have stated they will not consider an autonomous area, a main demand for the Kurds,” the AP noted.
Mikhail Bogdanov, deputy minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, told Bloomberg, “Russia is also ready to mediate between Damascus and the Syrian Kurds in the northeast who have been under US protection, to allow for the return of Syrian government troops and the eventual withdrawal of Turkish forces.”
In the wake of the U.S. announcement last week that it will withdraw its 2,000 American troops from Syria, YPG fighters turned to the Syrian government and Russia to fill the vacuum left by the Americans.
Kurdistan 24 quoted a statement by the YPG as saying:
Due to the invading Turkish state’s threats to invade northern Syria and displace its people similarly to al-Bab, Jarablus and Afrin, we as the People’s Protection Units, following the withdrawal of our forces from Manbij before, announce that our forces will be focusing on the fight against ISIS on all the fronts in the east of the Euphrates.
In conjunction with this, we invite the Syrian government forces which are obliged to protect the same country, nation, and borders, to assert control over the areas our forces have withdrawn from, in particularly Manbij, and to protect these areas against a Turkish invasion.
Citing the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which uses ground sources to monitor the fight, the AP reported:
Syrian government forces have been massing on the edges of Manbij, a front line between Kurdish-led forces and Turkey-backed fighters to the west. It is not yet clear whether U.S. troops, which had patrolled the area, remain in place or have withdrawn. There was no immediate response from the U.S-led coalition.
In the past, Russia and Assad have asked the YPG, which leads and makes up the majority of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), for territory in exchange for assistance against the Turks, and this time appears to be no exception.
On Wednesday, Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, also urged the U.S.-led coalition to put the Assad regime in charge of the territory it holds in Syria.
“An essential question arises: Who will inherit control over the territories vacated by the Americans? Obviously, that should be the Syrian government, in accordance with international law and considering the path that Syria and the Syrian people have traveled down,” the spokeswoman told a press conference in Moscow.
“We closely coordinate our views and the implementation of a concrete policy in Syria with our Turkish colleagues,” Zakharova added.
The YPG, the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has managed to maintain control of about a third of Syria with the help of the U.S. military, the Assad regime holds over half, and Turkish-backed forces control the rest.
Turkey has long considered the YPG and its allies in Syria an extension of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) communist terrorist group. Although Turkey has recently delayed its planned operation into Kurdish-held territory east of the Euphrates river, in northeastern Syria near the Turkish border, Ankara has vowed to push the Syrian Kurds our of the area.
Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration announced plans to pul the 2,000 American troops from Syria, handing the fight against ISIS to Turkey and effectively giving Ankara the green light to attack the YPG.
After the U.S. withdrawal announcement, Syrian Kurds accused the Trump administration of leaving them vulnerable to Turkish attacks after they helped the American-led coalition decimate ISIS.
Although Assad and pro-Syrian opposition Turkey are on opposite sides of the war in Syria, U.S. support for the Kurds has pushed America’s NATO ally, Ankara, closer to Russia.