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Dec 28 2018

U.S. says Damascus' claims of Manbij takeover are untrue

The United States has rejected Syrian claims that Syrian regime forces have seized control of the key northern city of Manbij, a centre of operations in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS).

"Despite incorrect information about changes to military forces in the city of Manbij, Syria, Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) has seen no indication that these claims are true," Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement to Ahval. "We call on everyone to respect the integrity of Manbij and the safety of its citizens."

However, the U.S. statements was one of many conflicting views expressed on Friday about exactly which group was in control of the Syrian city.

By Friday evening reports from Russia stated that President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation's security council had congratulated the Syrian regime's expansion of territory in a statement said to refer to Manbij. 

The Syrian army said earlier on Friday that it had entered Manbij, the headquarters of U.S. and Kurdish troops fighting Islamic State (ISIS) in the east and northeast of the country. Russia welcomed the move.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based organisation, quoted local sources as saying the Syrian regime forces had deployed in areas of the Manbij countryside outside the town itself, between Turkish forces and those of the predominantly Kurdish groups in control of the town.

A local journalist, Mohammed Hassan, posted video footage showing the Manbij town centre, which he said was still under the control of the Manbij Military Council, consisting of the Kurdish groups and local Arab forces.

Syrian Civil War Map, a website that monitors the ongoing situation in Syria and updates maps of the conflict, quoted the People's Protection Units (YPG), one of the armed Kurdish groups that set up the Manbij Military Council, as saying the Syrian regime forces would be deployed to the north and west of the town, which would remain under the council's control.

It is the presence of the YPG and its allies in areas close to the border that provoked threats of a military response from Turkey, which views the group as a terrorist organisation.

However, Salih Muslim, a former co-chair of the YPG's political wing, said the Syrian regime would not be entering Manbij. Instead, he said, Assad's regime and the YPG would cooperatively govern the city.

However, the YPG has issued a statement in English over its website announcing its withdrawal from Manbij and its intention to concentrate its forces in the northern Syrian territories east of the River Euphrates.

"In conjunction with this, we invite the Syrian government forces which are obliged to protect the same country, nation and borders, to assert control over the areas our forces have withdrawn from, in particularly Manbij, and to protect these areas against a Turkish invasion," the statement said.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government is assuming its right to impose its sovereignty on all areas of the country and responded to calls from Manbij residents to take over the area, the Syrian military said, according to the state-run Sana news agency.

The operation reportedly began after U.S. President Donald Trump controversially announced this month that he was pulling U.S. troops out of Syria. Politicians from both the Republicans and Democrats have criticised the decision, saying it weakened U.S. strategy for the Middle East and strengthened the positions of rivals Russia and Iran, staunch allies of Damascus.

The Syrian flag has been hoisted above Manbij, Syria's army said, adding that it “reiterates its insistence on smashing terrorism and expelling the invaders and occupiers out of Syrian soil".

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in an initial reaction to the report earlier in the day, said Turkey would have no business in Manbij so long as Kurdish militants left the city.

Russia said the operation was "a positive step that contributes to bringing stability to the country".

Kurdish militants controlling many regions of northern Syria had started to negotiate with Damascus to provide protection after Turkey threatened to invade Manbij and areas east of the Euphrates river to quash their efforts for political autonomy.

Turkey and its allied fighters have been amassing troops near Manbij in recent days.

A timetable for the U.S. withdrawal from Syria has not yet been made public.

Syria's claims of control of Manbij come a day before Moscow hosts senior Turkish officials to discuss the Syria crisis.

Meanwhile, Turkey-backed Syrian rebel forces said they had begun moving towards Manbij with Turkish troops to show "full readiness to start military operations," Arab News reported. An organisation tracking the conflict in Syria and mapping troop movements -- syria.liveuamap.org -- said the Free Syrian Army rebels were moving a large convoy toward the city. 

The Turkish Defence Ministry called on all sides to avoid any move that would increase instability, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency.

"We warn all parties to stay away from provocative actions and rhetoric that will make the region more unstable," the ministry said in a statement.

"The YPG/PKK terrorist organisation that control the region by force does not have the right and the authority to make a statement and invite other elements on behalf of people in the region," it said.

Turkey designates the armed People's Protection Units (YPG) and its political equivalents as terrorist organisations and an extension of the Kurdistan WorkersParty (PKK), which has fought for political autonomy for Turkey's Kurds for more than three decades.

(Story was updated with U.S. denial from first paragraph).