ISTANBUL — The Syrian army said Friday it has entered a key city in northern Syria at the behest of Kurdish fighters, raising the government flag in a bid to thwart Turkish plans for a military offensive.
But both the U.S.-led coalition in Syria and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan contested the claims about Syrian troop movement.
Kurdish forces known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, had called on Syria’s government to “assert control” in the city of Manbij and protect it “against a Turkish invasion” following a buildup of Turkish troops and tanks in the area, the YPG said in a statement Friday morning.
The Syrian army said its units “entered Manbij city and raised the Syrian flag,” the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported.
The military said in a statement Friday that it did so “in response to calls from residents” and to “reimpose sovereignty over every inch of Syrian territory.”
But the exact location of the troops could not be confirmed. A fighter with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said in a text message that government forces had not yet been deployed.
A spokesman for U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State tweeted, “Despite incorrect information about changes to military forces in the city of Manbij, Syria, #CJTFOIR has seen no indication that these claims are true. We call on everyone to respect the integrity of Manbij and the safety of its citizens.”
Erdogan told reporters Friday in Istanbul that the Syrian army’s announcement was a “psychological operation” and that “nothing was certain” regarding troop movements in the area.
In any case, “these areas belong to Syria,” he said in comments carried by Turkey’s state broadcaster.
“Once the terrorist organizations leave the area, we will have nothing left to do there,” he said.
Turkey said this month it would launch a sweeping incursion east of the Euphrates River to target the YPG fighters it says threaten its security. Turkish forces have fought a decades-long battle against separatist Kurdish guerrillas at home.
But the offensive was delayed following a surprise announcement by President Trump this month of a planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, where they have partnered with Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State.
As part of that effort, the U.S. military has deployed forces to Manbij, where they have been patrolling the front line between the city and adjacent towns where fighters backed by Turkey are based.
The U.S.-led coalition said in an email Friday that it could not discuss U.S. troop locations “for operational security reasons.”
“We cannot discuss where our forces are in Syria or specific timelines on when they’ll be moving,” the email said.
Ilham Ahmed, a senior Kurdish official, said the U.S. troops have not yet withdrawn from Manbij, the Associated Press reported. She said an agreement is being worked out between the Russians and the Syrian government in which the latter takes over once the withdrawal is complete.
The YPG was formed early in Syria’s civil war to protect Kurds from the fighting. Since then, Kurdish forces and their allies have seized swaths of territory, which they have ruled autonomously.
Turkey had long urged the United States to abandon its Kurdish allies in Syria but, analysts say, did not anticipate a full U.S. withdrawal.
Now, Turkish officials say, they are coordinating with the United States to prevent a power vacuum in northeastern Syria, where a patchwork of conventional forces, foreign proxies and Islamist militants all vie for control.
In the Syrian city of Afrin this year, Turkey successfully routed YPG fighters, using local rebel proxies to retake the area.
But Turkey does not have a similar force capable of stabilizing areas east of the Euphrates and could stoke wider conflict with Syria’s government or Iran-backed fighters, analysts say.
Turkish and Russian officials will meet in Moscow on Saturday to discuss Syria, they said.
On Friday, Syrian government ally Russia said it “welcomed” the reports of Syrian troops entering Manbij, the country’s Tass news agency reported.
“This is a positive step toward stabilizing the situation,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to the report.
Suzan Haidamous in Beirut contributed to this report.