Syrian army deploys around Manbij after Kurdish calls for protection from Turkey
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The Syrian army said it had deployed forces to the Manbij frontline in northern Syria on Friday after the Kurdish YPG militia urged Damascus to protect the town, where US forces operate, from the threat of a major Turkish offensive.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said the government forces had entered a strip of territory at the edge of Manbij, not inside the town itself, creating a barrier with Turkey-backed fighters nearby.
Manbij, which US-backed forces captured from the Islamic State (IS) group in 2016, has emerged as a focal point of new tensions after US President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw US forces whose presence has effectively deterred Turkey.
After the Syrian army announcement, Turkey-backed Syrian rebels stationed in nearby territory said they had begun moving together with Turkish forces towards the town in readiness for "the start of military operations to liberate" it.
A witness said convoys of Turkey-backed insurgents, with armoured vehicles and machine guns, were moving towards the frontline.
Manbij, where US troops have a military base, is currently held by a local militia allied to the YPG which Turkey deems a security threat.
A spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting the IS group in Syria on Friday confirmed that regime forces were not inside Manbij, but rather on the outskirts of the city.
Despite incorrect information about changes to military forces in the city of Manbij, Syria, #CJTFOIR 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. #DefeatISISInherent Resolve (@CJTFOIR) December 28, 2018
"Despite incorrect information about changes to the military forces in Manbij city, [the US-led coalition] has seen no indication of these claims being true," US Central Command spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Earl Brown said.
Kurds left in the cold
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has vowed to crush the YPG, said Turkish officials would visit Russia –Bashar al-Assad's most powerful ally – on Saturday and discuss Syria. He indicated Turkey was not in a hurry to launch an offensive.
Trump's abrupt decision to withdraw troops from Syria has alarmed the Kurdish-led fighters who have fought the IS group alongside them for years.
Kurdish leaders are scrambling for a strategy to protect their region stretching across the north and east, where the presence of some 2,000 US troops has so far kept Turkey at bay.
With US forces soon out of the picture, Kurdish leaders are hoping the deployment of Syrian government forces, backed by Russia, will complicate any offensive by Turkey and its Syrian rebel proxies.
Syrian state media circulated a video showing dozens of soldiers marching on a countryside road, chanting for President Bashar al-Assad. The military statement said troops had raised the national flag in Manbij on Friday and would guarantee security "for all Syrian citizens and others present".
A resident inside the town said nothing had changed and he had not seen any such flags.
The YPG said on Friday its fighters had withdrawn from Manbij months before to fight the IS group elsewhere.
"We invite the Syrian government, to which we belong, as people, land and borders, to send its armed forces to take over these positions and protect Manbij in the face of Turkish threats," it said.
In November, Turkish and US troops began joint patrols near Manbij after reaching a deal that includes the YPG exiting the town.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)