Questions linger on who controls Syrian town of Manbij

Questions linger on who controls Syrian town of Manbij

BEIRUT – Reuters
Questions linger on who controls Syrian town of Manbij

A convoy of US forces armoured vehicles drives near the village of Yalanli, on the western outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Manbij, on March 5. AFP photo

Manbij in Syria’s north is under the protection of the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a Kurdish-allied militia that controls the city said, raising fresh questions over who controls the border town, which is described as “critical” by Turkey. 

Manbij has come into renewed focus since Turkey declared it the next target of the campaign it is waging with Syrian rebels in northern Syria to keep both ISIL and Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) forces and its armed wing the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) away from its border.

Ankara says the PYD and the YPG are extensions of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). 

The Manbij Military Council is part of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia alliance dominated by the YPG. The Turkish government says the YPG remains in Manbij, though the YPG says it withdrew last year after the city was captured from ISIL in an SDF assault backed by the U.S.-led coalition.

In a statement released late on March 5, the Manbij Military Council said the U.S.-led coalition had increased its presence in Manbij and the surrounding countryside “after the increase in Turkish threats to occupy the city.”

“We in the Manbij Military Council confirm again that Manbij and its rural areas are under the protection of the Manbij Military Council and under the care of the international coalition and its protection,” the Manbij Military Council said. 

After clashing with Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels west of Manbij last week, the council declared a deal with Russia to hand villages at the frontline with Turkish forces to Syrian government control.

Syrian regime forces will take over Manbij, which has been under the control of YPG forces, Russia stated on March 3, amid repeated calls from Turkey for the YPG Kurdish forces to leave the town. 

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. 

“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. 

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on March 2 said Turkey would strike the YPG if it did not withdraw from Manbij.