Syrian regime forces to take over Manbij, says Russia
MOSCOWSyrian regime forces will take over Manbij, which has been under the control of Syrian Kurdish forces since its liberation from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) jihadists, Russia stated on March 3, amid repeated calls from Turkey for Kurdish forces to leave the town.
In a media briefing organized by the Russian Defense Ministry on March 3, Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy, the chief of the Russian General Staff Main Operational Directorate, said the Syrian army has reached Manbij, which is currently under the control of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) forces, in accordance with Russian-mediated agreements.
“The Syrian government is taking steps to resume the work of government officials in Manbij and surrounding areas,” the website Sputnik quoted Rudskoy as saying.
Turkey regards the PYD and its military wing, the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), as terrorist organizations due to their links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with which Turkey has been in armed clashes for over three decades.
Rudskoy also said the Syrian government would administer state affairs in Manbij and the surrounding areas starting from March 3.
On March 2, the Manbij Military Council said they would cede several northern villages to government forces as part of a deal brokered by regime ally Russia to avoid conflict with Turkey.
Rudskoy’s statement came hours after Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık said Turkey expected PKK and PYD elements in northern Syria to withdraw to the east bank of the Euphrates river, which he described as a “red line” for Turkey.
Manbij lies to the west of the Euphrates river.
“We expect the coalition forces, especially the U.S., to keep promises given to Turkey in this regard,” Işık told reporters, adding that Turkey’s priority is the city of Manbij.
“This is the commitment of the United States to Turkey. We expect this commitment to be fulfilled as soon as possible,” he added.
Işık also noted that while ISIL had previously left some areas to Syrian regime forces, now the Syrian Kurdish forces were doing the same.
“Previously, Daesh left some places to the [Syrian] regime. Now, as we can see, the PYD and the YPG left some places to the regime,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIL.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is the main element along with some Arab militia, captured Manbij from ISIL in mid-August 2016.
Turkey launched its ongoing Euphrates Shield operation on Aug. 24, 2016, in a bid to clear its border of terrorist organizations including the PYD/YPG and ISIL.
Earlier this week, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu both warned the United States against continuing to work with the PKK/PYD in northern Iraq.
Washington regards the SDF as a reliable local power in its fight to defeat ISIL within the international coalition it leads. Turkey is part of that coalition.
Çavuşoğlu on March 2 said Turkey would strike the YPG if it did not withdraw from Manbij.
Speaking to reporters outside parliament in Ankara, Çavuşoğlu said Turkey and the U.S. “must not face off against each other because of Turkey’s fight against other terrorist groups [apart from ISIL],” the main focus of the Euphrates Shield Operation in northern Syria.
On March 1, Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels seized two villages near al-Bab, which they captured from ISIL last week, from U.S.-supported SDF rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated.