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US-backed Kurdish forces agree to hand over key area to Syrian government

Manbij Military Council, part of the SDF, says it will hand over defence of areas west of Manbij to protect civilians, in deal brokered by Russia
Turkey has said it will strike Manbij if mainly Kurdish forces do not vacate the area (AFP)

A US-backed military council in Manbij said on Thursday it will hand over areas west of the flashpoint town to Syrian government troops, after an agreement brokered by Russia, as armoured personnel carriers flying the US flag were seen moving into areas north of the town.

The reports came after sustained clashes between the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Turkey-backed Free Syria Army rebels.

Following news of the deal between the SDF - mainly made up of the US-backed Democractic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing the Peoples' Protection Units (YPG) - and the Syrian government, Turkey's foreign minister threatened further military action.

"If the YPG does not vacate Manbij we will strike," Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters on Thursday morning.

“We don’t want the US to continue cooperating with a terrorist organisation that targets us,” he went on. 

Turkey's prime minister, Binali Yildirim, said Washington has to "choose" whether to continue working with one side or the other.

"We know this terrorist organisation very well whatever name it chooses to use: YPG, PYD or something else," he told reporters in Ankara.

"Our friends and allies need to think hard about the path they want to pursue. They can either choose Turkey or to work with terrorist organisations."

It was not immediately clear whether the military vehicles flying the US flag were US troops, or SDF forces using the US flag to prevent attacks by Turkey-backed forces.

The SDF has caused controversy in the past by flying the US flag over their positions to deter attacks by Turkish forces.

The reported troop movements came as the Manbij Military Council, which is part of the SDF, reached an agreement with Russia to leave the defence of areas west of the town to Syrian government troops.

The SDF announced that that the agreement to leave the defence of areas west of Manbij to the Syrian army had been reached in hopes of protecting civilians.

Clashes had broken out on Wednesday between Turkish-backed rebels from the Free Syria Army (FSA) and members of the largely Kurdish SDF.

The fighting broke out just west of the strategic northern town of Manbij, close to the Turkish border.

The Turkish military is providing artillery support to the FSA rebels involved in the fight, according to Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, which quoted the Russian news site Sputnik.

The Turkish-backed forces were reported to be making quick progress through villages to the west of Manbij.

The town of Manbij, situated on the Euphrates river, was wrested from IS militants in summer 2016 by the SDF, a mixed force of fighters mainly from the YPG. 

The SDF ground troops were backed by US air strikes during that campaign.

Turkey launched its Euphrates Shield offensive in August with the aim partly of preventing the Kurdish YPG forces from linking up Kurdish cantons along Turkey's border. It considers the YPG a terrorist organisation affiliated to the Turkish PKK and wants to remove its forces west of the Euphrates river.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday announced that the Turkish military, spearheaded by FSA fighters, would march on Manbij after having completed its mission to free the town of al-Bab, just west of Manbij, from IS last week.

Anti-IS forces push their advance into al-Bab last week (AFP)

'Now it is time for Manbij'

“Now it is time for Manbij, which belongs to the Arabs, not the PYD or YPG,” said Erdogan.

The United States had promised Turkey that PYD / YPG forces would withdraw from Manbij to the east of the Euphrates, but Ankara says that withdrawal never happened.

“We told this to our American friends. The PYD and YPG should move to the east of the Euphrates; the area should be left to the locals of Manbij,” said Erdogan.

Turkey has refused US requests to cooperate with the SDF, saying it is a smokescreen for the PYD and that any Arab members it has are merely tokens. 

Turkey accuses the PYD of engaging in ethnic cleansing, and Erdogan insisted on Tuesday that Manbij must be populated by indigenous Arabs.

Turkey and FSA fighters took control of the town of al-Bab last week as part of the Euphrates Shield operation, which was launched on 24 August.

Turkey’s stated aim from this military incursion is to clear what it calls terrorist threats from an area of roughly 5,000 square kilometres along its borders with Syria.

Joint operation for Raqqa in doubt

The Turkish military said it had achieved its initial objectives after the capture of al-Bab.

Around 75 Turkish soldiers were killed in the operation, along with hundreds of FSA fighters.

The Turkish military said more than 3,000 IS and YPG militants have been killed thus far.  

Ankara has proposed a joint operation with the US to lay siege to Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of IS, but only if the PYD is excluded.

The US views the PYD as its most effective ground force in the fight against IS, and that doesn’t appear to have changed since Donald Trump took office.

Ankara has warned the US of the future consequences of using what it calls one terrorist outfit to fight another.

Ankara says the PYD is an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated as terrorist by Turkey, the US and the EU.  

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