WASHINGTON / AMMAN / BEIRUT: The U.S. military has deployed a small number of forces in and around the Syrian city of Manbij as part of a new role to ensure that the different parties in the area do not attack each other, a Pentagon spokesman said Monday.
Captain Jeff Davis told reporters the forces were stationed inside and to the west of Manbij starting last week to be a “visible sign of deterrence and reassurance.”
While U.S forces have carried out train, advise and assist missions in Manbij, this is the first time they have been deployed to make sure that Turkey- and U.S.-backed forces do not attack each other and focus on fighting Daesh (ISIS) militants.
The villages west of Manbij have been a focus of fighting since Wednesday between Turkish-backed rebels opposed to the Syrian government and the Manbij Military Council, part of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces which includes the Kurdish YPG group.
Turkey, a U.S. ally through NATO, views the Kurdish militia known as the YPG – the main component of the SDF – as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency inside its own borders and has classified the party as a terror organization.
“This is a new effort, this is the first time we’ve had to do something like this, which is to ensure that we are out there as a visible symbol that the enemy is cleared out of Manbij,” Davis said. “There is not a need for others to advance on it in attempts to ‘liberate’ it,” he added.
He did not give a specific number of U.S. forces involved but said it was fewer than dozens and was carried out under existing authority.
The city is controlled by the Manbij Military Council, which confirmed in a statement that the U.S.-led alliance had boosted its presence in the city recently after “the increase in Turkish threats to occupy the city.”
After clashing with Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army rebels west of Manbij last week, the council declared a deal with Russia to hand villages at the front line with Turkish forces to Syrian government control.
“The handover has taken place,” Sharfan Darwish, the spokesman for the Manbij Military Council, told Reuters Monday.
Earlier in the day, he said around five villages were included in the deal brokered by Russia.
Elsewhere, SDF fighters cut the main road between the northern Daesh stronghold of Raqqa and the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, which is partially held by the extremist group.
But despite the fresh blockade on the Raqqa-Deir al-Zor road, Daesh still controls large swaths of ground south of Raqqa and the extremists should be able to use smaller roads and paths through open desert to move between the cities.
The SDF began the third phase of Euphrates Wrath, an operation aimed to surround and capture Raqqa, last month with the aim of capturing villages and towns east of Raqqa. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said SDF fighters cut the road linking the two cities in the area of al-Jazeera near Raqqa early Monday.
SDF spokesman Talal Silo told the Associated Press that “our forces have cut the main supply line between Raqqa and Deir al-Zor.”
He added that it is still too early to impose a siege on Raqqa since the extremists still control areas west and south of the city.
The blockade of the main road comes amid an ongoing SDF march toward Raqqa; its fighters are now stationed 8 kilometers north of the Euphrates River city and supported by both coalition airstrikes and a deployment of some 500 U.S. special forces operators.
The Pentagon has said that its soldiers are working in a purely advisory capacity.
The military media unit of Lebanese group Hezbollah reported a number of advances by the Syrian government Monday.
The regime forces seized both Alloush hill in the southern area of Deir al-Zor and the Jazal oil field west of Palmyra from Daesh.
In Aleppo province, government forces neared the Al-Khafsa water pumping station in the eastern countryside, after taking more 50 villages in past days, Hezbollah media reported. Syrian state news agency SANA reported army advances in Aleppo’s northeastern countryside, after intense fighting with Daesh, capturing 18 villages and taking control over two strategic mountains.
In the city of Deraa, regime forces captured four building blocks northwest of Furn al-Manshiyat, after clashes with Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and allied groups, SANA said.