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Syrian army says it has entered key city of Manbij after appeal from Kurdish fighters

Posted December 28, 2018 7:08 a.m. EST
Updated December 28, 2018 10:09 a.m. EST

Syrian army says it has entered key city of Manbij after appeal from Kurdish fighters

— Syria's army said Friday it had entered the northern city of Manbij for the first time in years, after Kurdish fighters called on Syrian forces to protect the area from the threat of a Turkish attack.

Syria's military command announced in a televised statement that its troops had raised the Syrian flag in Manbij following what it described as an appeal by people in the area.

The claim was disputed by a US official with knowledge of the situation, who told CNN that there were no Syrian regime forces in Manbij on Friday. The official said the US assessment was that Syrian troops were moving closer to the city.

The US still has Special Forces on the ground in the area, according to the US official. One Manbij resident told CNN that he had seen a US patrol near a mosque in the city center on Friday, and a Syrian opposition group told CNN that US forces still controlled the city.

Syria's announcement came after the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) issued a statement urging President Bashar al-Assad's forces to "assert control over the areas our forces have withdrawn from, in particular Manbij, and to protect these areas against a Turkish invasion."

The YPG is the backbone of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-led fighting force that is America's main partner on the ground in the battle against ISIS.

The development comes just days after President Donald Trump blindsided allies in the region by announcing that US troops were withdrawing from Syria, and declaring that the war against ISIS had been won.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned last week in disagreement over Trump's decision, which could leave the Syrian Kurds, who have been assisted and armed by the US, at risk from both ISIS and Turkey. The US has about 2,000 troops in Syria, and no specific date for their withdrawal has been given.

Turkey, a NATO member, also has forces in the area, and considers the Syrian Kurds a terrorist group linked to a Kurdish insurgency inside its country.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed skepticism over the Syrian claims Friday, saying that he had not heard "anything conclusive" from intelligence or Russia, a key backer of Assad.

"We know that Syria is in a psychological action towards Manbij, we know they are waving their flags, but there is nothing conclusive or certain," Erdogan told journalists on Friday. He reiterated that Turkey's goal in Syria was for "the terror organizations to leave. If they leave we will have nothing to do there."

Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov welcomed the developments Friday, describing them as "a positive step towards stabilization of the situation."

"Expansion of the government control zone is a positive trend," Peskov said, adding that Moscow and Ankara would discuss the situation in Syria in a ministerial meeting Saturday.

Kurdish forces have maintained control over swathes of northern Syria over the past few years. But in January, Turkey launched an operation targeting Kurdish groups in northwest Syria to clear the border area of militias it considers to be terrorist organizations.

Clashes between the Turkish military and the SDF have intermittently plagued and delayed the final operations against ISIS.

The YPG said Friday that following its withdrawal from Manbij, it would be "focusing on the fight against ISIS on all fronts in the east of the Euphrates."

While the YPG had some small skirmishes with Syrian government forces earlier on in the war, they allowed the Syrian military to maintain footholds in their areas of control.