TUE 19 - 3 - 2019
Date: Jan 3, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Kurdish, Turkey-backed fighters withdraw from Manbij front lines
BEIRUT: Turkey-backed Syrian forces and Kurdish fighters withdrew from the front lines near Manbij in the northeast, Syria’s Defense Ministry and activists said Wednesday, in an apparent sign of de-escalation around the flashpoint city.

Pro-Ankara reinforcements that had recently been sent to support operations in Manbij withdrew to bases on the outskirts of the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The Turkish government has yet to respond to the report.

Turkey had been massing troops near Manbij after Syrian government forces deployed last week around the city at the request of the Kurds.

The military build-up followed President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement that U.S. troops would pull out from Syria, thereby depriving the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces of their key ally and leaving Manbij residents exposed to a longstanding threat of attack by Turkey.

At the closest point, regime forces were stationed less than 500 meters from Turkey-backed fighters.

A convoy of Kurdish fighters also pulled out of the area, Syria's Defense Ministry said.

"According to information, approximately 400 Kurdish fighters have left Manbij so far," the ministry said in a statement. Their departure was in line with an agreement "for the return of normal life to the area of northern Syria," it said.

The ministry published online a video of dozens of vehicles travelling along an unmade road carrying armed fighters, some waving the flags of the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units (YPG) militia – the strongest element in the SDF - and its female counterpart the YPJ.

A spokesperson from the SDF did not immediately respond to The Daily Star's request for comment about the latest developments.

The strategic northern city on the Turkish border has been controlled by the SDF since 2016, but Turkey - hostile to the idea of a Kurdish autonomy along its border - has vowed to dislodge SDF fighters there.

Alongside backing rebels that oppose Damascus, Turkey has led two previous incursions into Syria, with the latest ousting Kurdish fighters from the northwestern enclave of Afrin in March.

Turkey regards the YPG as a terrorist group tied to the PKK inside its own borders, and has staged incursions into Syria in support of rebels to push it from the Turkish frontier.

U.S. forces have underpinned stability in Manbij since Daesh’s (ISIS) defeat in the city in 2016, and have conducted joint patrols with Turkish forces since November in an effort to allay Ankara's security concerns.

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