Russian military police patrol Manbij outskirts

Russian military police began patrolling areas near the northern Syrian town of Manbij on Tuesday, as uncertainty continues over whether U.S. President Donald Trump will go through with his plan to withdraw U.S. forces and clear the way for a Turkish advance into the area.

A military police representative told Associated Press that the patrols aimed to ensure security in the area and monitor movements of militants.

The Manbij area fell under the control of Kurdish group the People’s Protection Units (YPG) after the international coalition’s victory over the Islamic State. Administration of the region was later turned over to military and civilian councils. Though these are said to be separate entities to the YPG, Turkey is not convinced that the group, which it views as a terrorist organisation, has left the area.

The Russian military police patrols have taken place in a changing route through villages around Manbij, but is understood not to have entered areas controlled by the military council.

“The task is to ensure security in the area of responsibility [and] to monitor the situation and movements of armed formations,” Russian military police spokesperson Yusup Mamatov told Russian television station Rossiya 24 on Tuesday.

Turkey has launched two previous military operations against YPG forces in northern Syria due to the group’s links to Kurdish insurgent organisations in Turkey. The operations extended Turkish control over areas around the northern Syrian city of Aleppo and over the northwest Syrian enclave of Afrin.

After the capture of Afrin in March 2018, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan set his sights on Manbij, one of the last areas under YPG control to the west of the Euphrates river. A roadmap agreed last June with the United States, whose forces are deployed alongside the YPG in Manbij and east of the Euphrates river, has held off the threat of an attack by Turkey, but Trump’s announcement of a U.S. withdrawal on December 19 has thrown the area’s fate back into uncertainty.

A meeting between senior Turkish and Russian officials in late December does not appear to have resulted in Russian consent for a military advance. Russia’s approval was vital in the run-up to the Afrin operation, which was launched only after Russia withdrew its observer forces from around Afrin and agreed to allow Turkish jets to fly over the area.

The YPG and other affiliated Kurdish organisations turned to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to seek protection after Trump announced the withdrawal. Syrian regime forces began to amass on the outskirts of Manbij in late December, though they are understood not to have entered the town itself.

Nor did the Russian forces enter areas under the control of the Manbij Military Council, Kino Gabriel, a spokesperson for the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group affiliated with the YPG, told the Defense Post on Tuesday.