Syria’s military has arrived at the frontline of the flashpoint town of Manbij, after Kurdish fighters appealed to Damascus for help against the threat of attack by Turkey in the face of the withdrawal of US troops from the area.
It was not immediately clear whether US personnel, who are based in the town and have been patrolling Manbij and the tense frontline between it and adjacent towns where Turkey based fighters, were still present. The US-led coalition against Isis did not respond to a request for comment.
“We invite the Syrian government forces … to assert control over the areas our forces have withdrawn from, in particularly Manbij, and to protect these areas against a Turkish invasion,” a statement from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) said.
The Syrian army had already mobilised before the public Kurdish invitation. It said on Friday morning that units had entered the town on the western bank of the Euphrates.
A monitor and several local sources said Syrian troops had only massed on the edges of the town rather than the city centre, and that the Syrian flag had been raised above official buildings for the first time in years.
Syrian rebel groups backed by Trkey said in response that they had also begun moving towards Manbij in full readiness for a military operation.
The conflicting reports from Manbij are a harbinger of the chaos that is likely to ensue at the end of the 60-100 day timetable for the withdrawal of US troops, with the remaining fighting forces in Syria scrambling to replace them.
The plea for help from the Kurds, six years after they broke from Damascus, comes after Donald Trump’s surprise decision earlier this month to withdraw the 2,000 US troops stationed in Kurdish-held Syria, known locally as Rojava. The troops had been acting as a buffer between Turkey and Syria’s Kurds.
Kurdish forces have been the US’s most important ground partner in the fight against Isis, but Ankara views them as a terrorist threat and extension of the Kurdish separatist movement within its own borders.
Trump’s decision, made after a phone call with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, shocked many in Rojava, who said it left them caught between the claws of the Turkish leader and Assad.
The Syrian army said in a statement it would guarantee “full security for all Syrian citizens and others present in the area”.
Russia, the main ally of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, said the development was a positive step which could stabilise the situation in north-east Syria.
Turkish officials are due to arrive in Moscow on Saturday for talks over Syria’s future after the US withdrawal. As Russia controls much of Syria’s airspace, Erdoğan is likely to need cooperation from Moscow for any aerial bombardment of the YPG.
The YPG seized Manbij from Isis in 2016, and the town on Syria’s northern border has since become the frontline between the Kurds and Turkey in Syria’s complex civil war.
The US agreed to facilitate the removal of YPG fighters from the town as part of efforts to appease Turkey, its Nato ally, earlier this year, but perceived stalling on the matter infuriated Erdoğan. He has said repeatedly in recent months that his forces would deal with threats to Turkey’s safety themselves.
The YPG says its fighters recently withdrew from Manbij to fight the remnants of Isis in the east of the country. The allied Manbij Military Council nominally remains in charge of the area.
Speaking after Friday prayers in Istanbul, Erdoğan said that facts on the ground remained uncertain and dismissed the Syrian army’s entry into Manbij as a “psychological move”.
Ankara has insisted it has the capability to take over the battle against the last few thousand battle-hardened Isis troops and has Trump’s to do so – although the withdrawal decision prompted the resignations of his defence secretary Jim Mattis and envoy to the coalition against Isis, Brett McGurk.
The UK’s foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, criticised the decision on Friday, saying that the US president “makes a speciality of talking in very black and white terms about what’s happening in the world”.
“We have made massive progress in the war against Daesh [a derogatory Arabic name for Isis], but it’s not over and, although they have lost nearly all the territory they held, they still hold some territory and there is still some real risk,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.