Kurds to pull out of strategic Syria town after deal

Beirut (AFP) - The leading Syrian Kurdish militia said Tuesday it would withdraw from Manbij, easing fears of a direct clash between NATO allies Washington and Ankara over the strategic northern town.

The Kurds were key players in the fight against the Islamic State group, whose last holdout fighters have launched a deadly offensive against pro-regime forces further south.

Manbij is a Sunni Arab-majority town that lies just 30 kilometres (19 miles) south of the Turkish border, and where US and French troops belonging to the Western coalition against IS are stationed.

The Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) spearheaded a victorious offensive in 2016 to rid Manbij of IS and had kept military advisers in the town to train local forces.

"Now, after more than two years of continuous work and with the Manbij Military Council being self-sufficient in their training, the YPG has decided to pull its military advisers from Manbij," it said in a statement.

The YPG forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish-Arab alliance that has received extensive backing from the US-led coalition.

The Pentagon said US troops would remain in the town for now.

"There are no plans to move US forces from Manbij. However, more details of the Manbij roadmap are yet to be hammered out and more details will be announced later," spokesman Eric Pahon said.

For months, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to march on Manbij, accusing the YPG of being the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is blacklisted in Turkey.

- 'Roadmap' -

Those threats raised fears of a clash between Turkish and American troops that talks have tried to mollify.

On Monday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu met in Washington to back a "roadmap" whose rough outlines had been set last month, according to the State Department.

It said the diplomats would coordinate on "security and stability in Manbij," but gave no details.

Turkey's state news agency Anadolu, however, has said that after the YPG withdraws, the US and Turkish militaries would begin joint operations in Manbij.

A third phase would involve forming a new administration to run the town within 60 days, it said.

On his return to Turkey, Cavusoglu said the same sort of plan could be applied to other Syrian towns.

"We will apply the roadmap for Manbij, and then we will start implementing roadmaps for other cities," he said.

But the Manbij Military Council, which thanked the YPG on the completion of its training mission, denied any operational changes were in the cards.

"This withdrawal came after the US-Turkish agreement. There are no joint patrols at this time, or any operational changes. We have not received orders on that so far," the council's spokesman Sherfan Darwish told AFP.

The YPG withdrawal and the US-Turkey roadmap were no guarantee against renewed tensions, warned Aaron Stein, a fellow at the DC-based Atlantic Council.

"If implementation breaks down, the two sides may be back to square one, which was Erdogan implying he would kill Americans on a daily basis," he said.

- IS offensive -

US President Donald Trump has said he intends to pull US troops out of Syria but his defence establishment has stressed it wants to retain a presence to fully defeat IS.

The jihadist group has lost nearly all the ground it controlled four years ago, when it proclaimed a "caliphate" over territory the size of Britain that straddled Syria and Iraq.

But holdout fighters in their desert bastions in eastern Syria's Euphrates Valley region are proving hard to flush out, despite parallel operations by the US-backed SDF forces and pro-regime forces backed by Russia.

On Sunday, IS fighters launched a raid on villages controlled by mostly Shiite forces allied to the Syrian government in the Euphrates Valley, a monitor said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said "fierce" fighting had left at least 55 dead among pro-regime ranks, including 10 in an IS attack on a desert area south of Albu Kamal on Tuesday.

Twenty-six IS fighters have been killed in the fighting since Sunday, said the Britain-based war monitor.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said the jihadists had taken control of four villages along on the road between the provincial capital of Deir Ezzor and Albu Kamal, further south on the border with Iraq.

Near those villages is the small town of Hajin, the largest populated hub still under the control of IS jihadists.

The casualties on the pro-regime side were mostly fighters from Shiite militias present in the area, including groups from Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon's Hezbollah, the Observatory said.