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Last of Kurdish militia leave Syria’s Manbij to defuse Turkey tensions

Ankara had threatened to advance toward northern city to oust YPG fighters, who had stayed after defeating IS, raising fears of clash with US and French troops also stationed there

In this April 4, 2018 file photo, a US-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council soldier passes a US position near the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)
In this April 4, 2018 file photo, a US-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council soldier passes a US position near the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The last members of a Kurdish militia pulled out on Sunday from the Syrian town of Manbij, allied Arab fighters said, under a deal reached to avoid clashes with Turkey.

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) led the victorious 2016 offensive to rid Manbij of the Islamic State group and had kept military advisers in the town to train local forces.

It announced last month it would begin withdrawing from the town as the local Manbij Military Council was capable of holding it on its own.

“The last group of military advisers from the People’s Protection Units finished withdrawing on July 15, 2018 after completing their mission to train and develop our forces, under the deal with the international coalition,” the MMC said.

The YPG forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-Arab alliance that has ousted IS from swathes of Syria with help from the US-led coalition.

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But the militia is considered a “terrorist” group by Ankara, which sees it as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), outlawed in Turkey.

Ankara and allied rebels overran the YPG’s northwestern bastion of Afrin in March and threatened to continue on to Manbij.

That raised the specter of a possible confrontation with the American and French coalition troops stationed in the town.

A handout picture realeased by the Turkish Armed Forces shows Turkish soldiers accompanied by armoured vehicles patrolling between the city of Manbij in northern Syria and an area it controls after a 2016-2017 military incursion on June 18, 2018. (TURKISH ARMED FORCES/AFP)

A flurry of diplomacy between the US and Turkey produced a joint “roadmap” in May to coordinate security in Manbij and avoid a clash.

The YPG announced in June it would withdraw its forces from Manbij, but did not specify how many were still left in the town.

A US soldier provides security during a coordinated, independent patrol along the demarcation line near a village outside Manbij, Syria, June 26, 2018. (US Army photo/Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster)

Turkish troops began patrolling areas north of Manbij, which Syria’s infuriated government saw as a breach of its sovereignty.

Since conflict broke out there in 2011, Syria has been sliced up into various zones of control, with the government making a comeback to hold more than 60 percent of the country.

But much of its north is controlled by the YPG or its allies, and the US-led coalition fighting IS operates several bases there.

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