Coalition working to ease tensions between Turkey, Syria Kurds

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Al Qahtaniyah (Syria) (AFP) - Turkish and US troops began joint patrols Thursday in the Syrian city of Manbij as the US-led coalition against the Islamic State group sought to calm renewed tensions between Ankara and a Kurdish-led Syrian alliance fighting the jihadists.

Earlier this week, Turkey once again raised threats against the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), shelling its positions and warning of a new offensive to clear the militia from its border.

That sparked concern in Washington as it attempts to balance its ties with the YPG, a key force in the fight against IS, and its NATO ally Ankara.

The YPG forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US-led coalition's main ground partner in the fight against IS in Syria.

But Ankara views the YPG as a "terrorist" group and is set on preventing it from entrenching itself along the border.

In response to Wednesday's shelling, the SDF said it had temporarily halted its offensive against an IS holdout in eastern Syria.

In what appears to be an attempt by Washington to appease Turkey, US and Turkish troops on Thursday launched joint patrols on the outskirts of the northern city of Manbij, where French troops are also deployed.

Although the YPG claims to have pulled out of the city after the SDF seized it from IS in 2016, Ankara has recently complained that the group still has a presence there, repeatedly threatening military action.

"The joint patrol in Manbij between Turkish armed forces and the US began today at 3.53 PM (1253 GMT)," Defence Minister Hulusi Akar told lawmakers, according to state-run news agency Anadolu.

The patrol ran from the Sajur River that divides Manbij and the region of Jarabulus, which was captured from IS by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels in 2016 during Ankara's first offensive in northern Syria.

Shortly after it was announced, Turkey said its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had spoken over the phone with his US counterpart Donald Trump to discuss the Syrian conflict, including cooperation in Manbij.

They agreed to maintain "close contact" and maintained their "determination" to "further strengthen bilateral relations", a statement from the Turkish presidency said.

- 'De-escalation' -

The coalition said in a statement Thursday that "maintaining security and stability in Manbij is imperative to sustaining momentum" in the ongoing push to defeat IS in Syria.

"We're fully supportive of the road map and the combined joint patrols, and I am confident they will be very effective," said Major General Christopher Ghika, deputy commander of the coalition.

Turkish and US troops have been conducting separate "coordinated" patrols in Manbij as part of a roadmap laid out in June to defuse tensions between the two allies.

For Syria expert Nicholas Heras, joint patrols could help Washington block any attempt by Turkey's Erdogan to move on Kurdish areas held by the SDF in Syria's north and northeast.

"The Trump folks hope that the success of the patrols in Manbij would keep Erdogan from mischief in the areas controlled by the SDF," said the Center for a New American Security researcher.

Syria's Kurdish minority, oppressed for decades by Damascus, has taken advantage of the conflict ravaging Syria since 2011 to carve out a de facto autonomous area in Syria's northeast.

But Ankara fears the establishment of a Kurdish entity along its border will galvanise Kurdish separatists on its own soil.

"We have been in communication (with) both Turkey and the SDF to de-escalate the situation," coalition spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan said Thursday on Twitter.

After Wednesday's shelling, the SDF had warned of "a prolonged halt" to anti-IS operations if Ankara kept up its strikes.

SDF spokesman Kino Gabriel told AFP on Thursday that anti-IS operations in Syria were "temporarily suspended" but that the alliance's forces were still holding positions in the area.

"Offensive operations have been halted, defensive operations continue. Our forces are consolidating their positions defensively," he said.

- 'Revenge' -

For the second day in a row, hundreds of protesters poured into the streets Thursday in SDF-held areas in northern Syria, demonstrating against the Turkish bombardment.

"We want to send our voice to the world to stop the Turkish attacks against the Kurdish people," said 56-year-old Ali Saadun in the northeastern village of Al-Qahtaniyah.

"We consider it their revenge for the gains made by the Kurds" in Syria, added.

Since 2016, Turkey has carried out two operations against Kurdish forces in Syria, the last of which saw Ankara-backed Syrian rebels take the border city of Afrin in March.

The Turkish government sees the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a deadly insurgency in Turkey since 1984.

But while the PKK is designated as a terror group by Turkey and its Western allies, the YPG has no such designation.

Backed by coalition air strikes, the SDF launched a campaign on September 10 to expel IS from a holdout near the Iraqi border.

The animosity between Syria's Kurds and Turkey underlines the complexity of the multi-front Syrian conflict.

The war has cost over 360,000 lives since it broke out in 2011 with anti-government protests that were violently suppressed by the regime.

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