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US Denies Syrian Forces Taking Over Manbij

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters are pictured in the back of their trucks as they leave their barracks in the rebel-held border town of Jarabulus, Dec. 25, 2018, as they prepare to move toward Manbij.

Even as regional forces race to position themselves for the imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, U.S. military officials caution nothing on the ground has changed yet.

The U.S. on Friday dismissed claims Syrian forces were taking control of the northeastern city of Manbij, a key flashpoint between U.S.-backed Kurdish militias and Turkey, at the request of the Syrian Kurds.

In a statement, the Syrian army said its troops were taking up key positions, adding it "guarantees full security for all Syrian citizens and others present."

But the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State terror group responded on Twitter, saying it "has seen no indication that these claims are true."

"We call on everyone to respect the integrity of Manbij and the safety of its citizens," the coalition added.

US troops still in Syria

A U.S. defense official also told VOA dozens of U.S. forces that had been based just outside Manbij had not moved.

"We still have troops there," the official said, cautioning the U.S. remains focused on the safe and orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.

Fearing a Turkish invasion, Kurdish forces have been reaching out to Syria and Russia, going as far as to invite Syrian government forces to take over the area via Twitter.

Yet despite extending the invitation, Syrian Kurdish officials confirmed U.S. troops had yet to leave Manbij, and that Syrian forces had massed only in some areas on the outskirts of the city.

"The situation is stable for now," Badran Chiya, a Syrian Kurdish adviser, told VOA's Kurdish service Friday. "The daily life of the people continues normally. There is no tension."

Manbij, located along the Syrian border with Turkey, has been a flashpoint between the YPG, the main Syrian Kurdish militia and a key component of the U.S.-backed force fighting IS, and Turkey. Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist organization with links to Kurds in Turkey.

In June, the United States brokered a deal with Turkey that called for the YPG to withdraw from Manbij, which would be protected by joint U.S.-Turkish patrols. But Turkey has accused the U.S. and the Kurds of failing to meet their commitments, and has been threatening to clear the YPG from the area itself.

No plans to move on Manbij

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that, at least for now, his forces had no plans to move on Manbij itself.

"We are still supporting the integrity of Syrian soil. These areas belong to Syria," Erdogan told reporters following Friday prayers in Istanbul. "Once the terrorist organizations leave the area, we will have nothing left to do there."

But he said Turkish forces were still prepared to move into Syria, if necessary.

"It's not just about Manbij. We are aiming to wipe out all terrorist organizations in the region. Our main target is that the YPG takes the necessary lesson here," Erdogan added.

Despite Erdogan's comments, Turkish-backed Syrian rebels said Friday that they were continuing to advance on Manbij with Turkish forces and fight if needed "to start military operations to liberate" the city.

Russia, which has been seeking to broker an agreement on Manbij between Syria and the Kurdish militias that have been holding the city, welcomed the developments.

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Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov called the presence of Syrian forces in the city a "positive step."

Still, Moscow is also asking for more information from the U.S. and President Donald Trump regarding how and when U.S. forces will be withdrawn from Syria.

Following a meeting Friday in Moscow with Jordan's foreign minister, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that Russia wants "concrete explanations" from the U.S.

"It appears that Washington wants to shift the responsibility," Lavrov said.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton is expected to travel to Turkey later next week, announcing the trip on Twitter:

Friday's flurry of activity came as key regional players prepared for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country, a move announced just last week by Trump.

"Everybody is negotiating; the Russians are in the middle of it and clearly the Americans are, too," Joshua Landis, who heads the Middle East department at the University of Oklahoma, told VOA.

"The Syrian army doesn't want to get into a clash with Turkey. That would be a losing proposition. Neither does the YPG or anyone else," Landis added.

The U.S. has about 2,000 troops in Syria to fight the Islamic State terror group.

FILE - U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump greet military personnel at the dining facility during an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Dec. 26, 2018.
FILE - U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump greet military personnel at the dining facility during an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Dec. 26, 2018.

During a visit with U.S. troops in Iraq on Wednesday, Trump defended his decision to pull them out, declaring IS's self-declared caliphate defeated.

"I think a lot of people are going to come around to my way of thinking," he said. "Our presence in Syria was not open-ended and it was never intended to be permanent."

VOA's Kurdish service and Ed Yeranian contributed to this report.

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