Syrian army deploys to Manbij after Kurdish calls to deter Turkey

FILE PHOTO: A road sign that shows the direction to Manbij city is seen in the northern Syrian town of al-Bab, Syria March 1, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

The Syrian army said it had deployed forces to Manbij in northwest Syria on Friday, after the Kurdish YPG militia urged Damascus to protect the town from the threat of Turkish attacks.

A resident said the forces had not entered the town, where U.S. troops operate and have a military base. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, said the government forces were stationed out the outskirts, between the town and territory under Turkish influence.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw troops from Syria has alarmed the Kurdish-led fighters who have fought Islamic State 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 U.S. troops has so far deterred an incursion by Turkey, which deems the YPG a threat to its own territory and has vowed to crush it.

A deployment of government forces, backed by Russia, is likely to have a similar effect.

With the YPG at its forefront, the Syrian Democratic Forces alliance (SDF) seized Manbij in 2016 from Islamic State, a milestone in the U.S.-backed battle against the jihadists.

The town is held by the Manbij Military Council, fighters allied to the SDF, and abuts territory held by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels who have been mobilising for an assault.

U.S. military support for the Kurdish fighters has infuriated Turkey, a fellow member of the NATO alliance, which sees the YPG as an extension of the PKK movement that has been waging an insurgency inside Turkey for decades.

A Turkish-backed rebel official said the plan to attack SDF territory remained in force. “There is no Syrian soldier inside Manbij town from the regime’s forces,” said Major Youssef Hamoud, spokesman for the National Army rebel force.

He said his forces were waiting for Washington and Ankara to agree on how U.S. forces would leave Manbij.

The Syrian military statement said troops had raised the national flag in Manbij on Friday and would guarantee security “for all Syrian citizens and others present.”

The resident inside the town said nothing had changed and he had not seen any such flags.

The YPG says its fighters previously withdrew from Manbij to fight Islamic State jihadists in eastern Syria.

“So we invite the Syrian government, to which we belong, … to send its armed forces to take over these positions and protect Manbij in the face of Turkish threats,” it said on Friday.