BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's military said Friday it entered the flashpoint Kurdish-held town of Manbij in an apparent deal with the Kurds, who are looking for new allies and protection against a threatened Turkish offensive as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from Syria.
American troops who still patrol the town and Turkey denied there was any change of forces in the contested area.
The Syrian announcement and the conflicting reports reflected the potential for chaos in the wake of last week's surprise pronouncement by the United States that it was withdrawing its troops from Syria.
Since the U.S. decision, there has been a buildup of forces around Manbij and further east, ushering in new alliances and raising the chances of friction. The Kurds' invitation to Syrian troops is a sign that, faced with the prospect of being overwhelmed by their top rival Turkey, they'd rather Syria's Russian- and Iranian-backed government fill the void left by the Americans.
Meanwhile, a flurry of meetings is expected in the coming days as all sides of the conflict scramble to find ways to replace the departing U.S. troops. They include one Saturday in Moscow, where Russia will host top Turkish officials in a possible sign that the two sides could be working on a deal to avert a Turkish offensive into Syria. Russians officials have said they expect Syrian government troops to replace the U.S. troops when they withdraw.
Turkey considers the U.S.-backed Kurdish People's Protection Units, which now controls nearly 30 percent of Syria, a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders. Kurdish-controlled Manbij has been at the center of rising tension between the U.S. and Turkey.
On Friday, Syrian troops said they moved into Manbij at the request of its citizens, and raised the Syrian flag in the town. The Kurdish militia said it has invited the Syrian government to take control of Manbij to protect it against "a Turkish invasion."
A Kurdish official said the government deployment has so far been limited to the front line with Turkey-backed fighters, based north and west Manbij.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, welcomed the Syrian military announcement. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov called it a "positive step" that could help stabilize the area. Russia has signaled it expects the Syrian government to deploy where U.S. forces leave.
A resident of Manbij said there were no sign of Syrian troops in the town. And the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government forces have only reinforced front line positions outside the town held by Kurdish-led forces.
The U.S.-led coalition the announcement that government troops had entered the town was "incorrect," and called "on everyone to respect the integrity of Manbij and the safety of its citizens."
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Syrian government move was "a psychological act," and said the situation in Manbij was uncertain. Meanwhile, Turkey-allied forces then said they are fortifying their front line positions, threatening the military offensive in response to government advances.
But Erdogan noted that his country's goal is to oust the Kurdish militia from along his country's borders.
"If terror organizations leave, then there is no work left for us anyway," Erdogan told reporters.
National Security Advisor John Bolton is expected in Turkey after the new year.
In recent days, Turkey and allied Syrian fighters have been sending in reinforcement to the front lines and threatening an offensive to dislodge the Kurdish forces. In response, the U.S. first warned against unilateral action and increased patrols and observation points in northeastern Syria.
But in a surprise move, U.S. President Donald Trump announced last week his troops will withdraw from eastern Syria. He later said the withdrawal will be coordinated with Turkey.
The decision left U.S.' Syrian Kurdish partners in a conundrum. With no backing from the U.S., the Kurdish forces looked to new allies to protect their Kurdish-administered areas. Partners since 2014, the U.S-led forces and the Kurdish group have liberated most of east Syria from Islamic State militants.
Ilham Ahmed, a senior Kurdish official, said an agreement is being worked out between the Russians and the Syrian government. She said the U.S. troops have not yet withdrawn from Manbij, but said Syrian troops would take over once U.S. withdrawal is complete.
"The aim is to ward off a Turkish offensive," Ahmed said. "If the Turks' excuse is the (Kurdish militia), they will leave their posts to the government."
The Syrian government has said it welcomes the Kurdish group returning to areas under its authority. But government officials have stated they will not accept an autonomous area, a main demand for the Kurds.
The Syrian military declaration came shortly after the YPG invited the government to seize control of Manbij to prevent a Turkish attack.
"Based on the commitment of the Syrian military and armed forces to their national duties of asserting the state's sovereignty on every inch of territory in the Syrian Arab Republic and in response to the calls from the residents of Manbij, the Syrian general Command and Armed forces announce the entry of Syrian Arab Army units into Manbij and the raising of the Syrian Republic flag there," the Syrian military statement said.
A resident of Manbij who spoke to The Associated Press from the town on condition of anonymity said there was no sign of government troops inside the town.
Pro-state Syrian al-Ikhbariya TV aired footage from inside Manbij of commercial streets on a rainy day, but didn't show any troops. It carried images of a military convoy driving late at night, purportedly to Manbij.
A timetable for the U.S. withdrawal has not yet been made public.
Associated Press writer Nataliya Vasilyeva from Moscow and Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report.