Syria’s military has entered a flashpoint Kurdish-held town and raised the national flag after Turkey threatened to launch an offensive.
A Kurdish official said the troops arrived only at the front lines in Manbij but an agreement is being worked out with the Russians and the Syrian government that, in case of a full withdrawal of US troops, the government would take over.
Ilham Ahmed said the US troops who patrol the town and the tense front line with Turkey-backed fighters have not yet withdrawn from Manbij.
“The aim is to ward off a Turkish offensive,” Ms Ahmed said. “If the Turks’ excuse is the (Kurdish militia), they will leave their posts to the government.”
Pro-state Syrian TV aired footage from inside Manbij of commercial streets on a rainy day but did not show any troops. It aired images of a military convoy driving late at night, reportedly to Manbij.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian troops have deployed around Manbij on the front line, with the Turkey-backed fighters to the west.
Turkey’s president said the facts on the ground remain uncertain but he emphasised Turkey’s goal of ousting a Kurdish militant group.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the Syrian military’s entry into Manbij a “psychological act”. He told reporters: “I spoke with my friends, with intelligence etc about an hour ago and there is nothing certain at this moment.”
He also argued that Turkey has been working for Syria’s territorial integrity and said Turkey’s goal remains the defeat of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or the YPG. Turkey considers it a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders.
“If terror organisations leave, then there is no work left for us anyway,” Mr Erdogan said.
The announcement and the conflicting reports reflect that all sides are scrambling to reach an agreement on how to replace US troops following the surprise announcement by President Donald Trump.
The announcement by the Syrian military was quickly welcomed by the Kremlin, whose spokesman Dmitry Peskov called it a “positive step” that could help stabilise the situation.
The Syrian military declaration came shortly after the main Syrian Kurdish militia invited the government to seize control of Manbij to prevent a Turkish attack.
The Syrian Kurdish group, which had partnered with the US since 2014 to fight the Islamic State group, have sought new allies, reaching out to the government and the Russians to protect their Kurdish-administered areas in north Syria.
The Syrian government has said it welcomes the Kurdish group returning under its authority. But government officials have stated they will not consider an autonomous area, a main demand for the Kurds.
Meanwhile, Syrian troops have massed outside of Manbij and in south-eastern Syria, where the US-led coalition and Kurdish fighters are battling remnants of Islamic State.