ISTANBUL — Russia announced Tuesday that its units were patrolling between Turkish and Syrian military forces near the strategically important Syrian town of Manbij, in a sign that Moscow, a key ally of the Syrian government, was moving to fill a security vacuum after U.S. troops withdrew from the area.

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that military police in northwestern Manbij were patrolling “along the line of contact between” Syria and Turkey, with a senior Russian official saying Moscow was working to prevent a confrontation between them.

The Americans, who withdrew as part of President Trump’s sudden pullout of U.S. forces from northern Syria, left behind a military outpost that suggested a hurried exit, according to videos posted by smiling Russian soldiers and journalists who toured the base.

Vehicles and weapons appeared to have been removed before the Americans withdrew, but a Game Boy, a refrigerator full of soft drinks and what appeared to be a few boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts remained. A book by the author Stieg Larsson sat on a table, next to a red can of Pringles. On another table sat a half-eaten meal.

In confirming that U.S. troops had left Manbij, Col. Myles B. Caggins III, a U.S. military spokesman, wrote on Twitter: “Coalition forces are executing a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria.”

A week-old Turkish offensive in northern Syria targeting Kurdish fighters, long supported by the United States, has upended alliances and redrawn spheres of control in Syria’s eight-year conflict. The incursion has uprooted tens of thousands of civilians and sparked fears of a resurgence by the Islamic State militant group. And it precipitated the withdrawal of the United States from a part of Syria it had patrolled for years.

But just like that, one superpower ceded influence to another, with little fanfare, as if territory was a thing to be handed off, like a suddenly vacant chair.

It seemed hasty, even as U.S. officials said they had “deconflicted” with their Russian counterparts as they withdrew to ensure that no clashes occurred. The U.S. withdrawal from Syria has prompted anguish and hand-wringing in Washington, about the American role in the world, and drawn accusations from Syrian Kurds, who had teamed up with the U.S. military to fight the Islamic State, that the Americans had betrayed them.

For Hevin Mohammed Hamcho, 29, it meant a frantic journey across the border to Iraq, while she was eight months pregnant. “We thought the Americans would protect us, but then they just stepped back so quickly,” she said Tuesday. “We trusted them, and that’s left us with nothing.”

Syrian Arab News Agency, a state media outlet, shared video Oct. 14 showing Syrian troops entering the border town of Tal Tamr after a deal was reached. (SANA)

Exhausted Syrian Kurds said they had paid smugglers to get them out. Carrying few possessions — often no more than could be stuffed in a handbag — they had walked for hours in the darkness before trudging toward checkpoints. 

“I’ve spent so many years watching the tragedy of the refugees on the news. I never thought I could be one of them,” said Rafat, 45, who arrived Monday at the sun-baked Domiz refugee camp. “My legs hurt. My calves hurt. We are all exhausted.” He and others spoke on the condition that only their first names be used, citing security concerns. 

Although most had expected the offensive, its speed and scope had come as a shock.

One family, unable to afford the smugglers’ fee, said they had packed onto two motorbikes and driven as quickly as they could across the border. “The peshmerga were shooting at us,” said Rasheed, 24, referring to the Kurdish security forces in Iraq. “We held tight and just kept going,” he said. 

Manbij focus

The consequential shift in Syria’s conflict had occurred a day earlier, when the Syrian Kurds announced that they had struck an agreement with President Bashar al-Assad’s government, ending a Kurdish experiment in self-rule, signed as the Turkish military closed in.

The deal would allow Syrian government forces to take over security in some border areas, according to Syrian Kurdish officials, who said their administration would maintain control of local institutions. Early Tuesday, Syrian state television reported that government troops had entered Manbij. It aired video footage of what it said were residents celebrating the arrival of Syrian forces in the center of town. 

Ankara has said its military operation is aimed at clearing the border of Syrian Kurdish forces with links to Kurdish militants inside Turkey and repatriating Syrian refugees to the country. 

The United States and other Western allies of Turkey have condemned the operation, warning that it could lead to a resurgence of the Islamic State. The Trump administration Monday called on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to implement an immediate cease-fire and imposed sanctions on Turkey’s Defense and Energy ministries, as well as on three senior Turkish officials.

President Trump has been harshly criticized, including by some Republican allies, for withdrawing U.S. troops and leaving the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to face the Turkish military. Vice President Pence announced Monday that he was leading a delegation to Turkey in the “immediate future” in an effort to end the violence. 

Erdogan has given no indication that he is willing to halt the offensive. “We will soon secure the region from Manbij to the border with Iraq,” he said Tuesday during a visit to Azerbaijan, referring to a 230-mile expanse. 

In response to Turkey's military incursion into Syria, President Trump raised steel tariffs and threatened more sanctions on Oct. 14. (Reuters)

The offensive has raised questions about the future of towns and cities all along the border. On Tuesday, though, the focus was on Manbij, a town 17 miles from the Turkish border that has been a focal point of Turkey’s security anxieties as well as its troubled relationship with the United States.

Turkey had long demanded that the United States expel the SDF from Manbij and complained that a deal struck with Washington to remove the fighters was not being implemented. 

Turkey and the United States agreed in December on a plan for the SDF to withdraw from Manbij, and a road map envisioned joint U.S.-Turkish patrols in the city. Turkish officials view the Kurdish fighters in Syria as terrorists because of their links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a ­decades-long war for autonomy inside Turkey.

Months of negotiations over Manbij were scuttled when Turkey began its military offensive last week.

Russian role

Moscow, which has friendly ties with the Syrian and Turkish governments, appeared uniquely positioned to prevent the two militaries from clashing around Manbij and elsewhere in Syria. At the same time, Russia has made clear that it opposes Turkey’s military operation. Alexander Lavrentiev, Russia’s special envoy for Syria, said Tuesday that the offensive was “unacceptable.” 

“We have never favored and never supported the idea of sending, for instance, Turkish units there, not to mention Syrian armed opposition,” he said, referring to Turkish-backed rebel groups, according to the Interfax news agency. 

Russia’s principal interests in Syria include “mounting a successful defense of its Syrian ally in Damascus, restoring Damascus’s writ and sovereignty over the entire territory of Syria, and then additionally reconciling the Syrian government with its regional and international surroundings,” said Sam Heller, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group. Russia’s efforts to normalize Syria’s relationships have included promoting a 20-year-old agreement between Ankara and Damascus intended to address Turkey’s security concerns — an accord that could eventually lead to restoring relations between the two governments.

But Turkey’s plans to control a swath of Syrian territory, for an undetermined period of time, appeared to clash with Russia’s aims. And despite Moscow’s announcement Tuesday of peacekeeping efforts, fighting around Manbij continued, according to several reports. 

A Kurdish official said Tuesday that scattered clashes occurred outside Manbij and that artillery fire from Turkey had struck the town. The Turkish-backed Syrian National Army, an umbrella group of rebel factions, said Tuesday that its forces had “started freeing villages” around Manbij a day earlier but had not entered.

Turkey said Tuesday that two of its soldiers were killed and eight others injured as a result of mortar and artillery fire by “terrorists” in Manbij, referring to the SDF. 

Syrian government troops were spread mainly around the edges of Manbij, but Kurdish fighters still controlled the town, according to Abu Musafir, a member of the Manbij Tribal Council. The majority of ethnic-Arab residents “were excited about the military operation led by Turkey and the Syrian National Army,” he said, while at the same time worried about the return of the Syrian army. 

The battles across Syria over the past week have taken a withering toll on civilians. The United Nations has said that as many as 160,000 people, including 70,000 children, have been displaced since the fighting in northeastern Syria escalated nearly a week ago. The Kurdish administration said Tuesday that as many as 275,000 internally displaced people are in the region. 

The Kurdish Red Crescent said Monday that international aid groups have pulled their international staff from the northeast, leaving camps for displaced people with “extremely limited support.” 

Dadouch reported from Beirut, and Englund from Moscow. Asser Khatab in Beirut, Louisa Loveluck and Mustafa Salim in Dahuk, Iraq, Natasha Abbakumova in Moscow and Erin Cunningham in Istanbul contributed to this report.