Turkey deploys more troops around Kurdish stronghold in Syria

US special forces at an outpost outside the north-western Syrian town of Manbij in February. The US has pulled out all the soldiers it had there.
US special forces at an outpost outside the north-western Syrian town of Manbij in February. The US has pulled out all the soldiers it had there.PHOTO: NYTIMES

ANKARA/ISTANBUL • Turkey's military deployed hundreds of vehicles and troops in areas surrounding a north-western Syrian town that Ankara has long pushed the United States to clear of Kurdish militant groups, state broadcaster TRT reported yesterday.

Soldiers in a convoy of around 200 vehicles, including howitzers, armoured military personnel carriers and artillery, advanced to reinforce the military's presence in areas close to Manbij, TRT said.

The state broadcaster was airing live footage from the outskirts of Manbij, located on the western flank of the Euphrates River that splits northern Syria roughly into two halves.

The town was a source of ten-sion between the US and Turkey because Ankara accused Washington of stalling on a June agree-ment to push Kurdish forces away from the area.

The military deployment yesterday could mark a rapid change in the dynamics between the two countries after US President Donald Trump announced a withdrawal of American forces from Syria following a Dec 14 phone call with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mr Trump's pullout decision drew cautious optimism from Turkish officials.

While indicating an end to US support for Kurdish militant group the YPG, the withdrawal could also pave the way for a power grab by Iran and Russia, the two other key actors in the Syrian civil war.

TRT said yesterday that the US has already pulled out all of the 300 to 400 soldiers it had in Manbij, but Kurdish forces remained in their positions.

Turkey has long criticised the US for training and arming the YPG, which it says is linked to domestic terrorists it has fought for more than three decades. Washington has been adamant that its collaboration with the group was "temporary, transactional and tactical".

TRT said the additional troops and military vehicles were sent to reinforce areas that were already in Turkey's sphere of influence, thanks to a previous military operation called the Euphrates Shield.

Yesterday's deployment is another sign that Mr Erdogan has managed to become a more central player both in Middle Eastern politics and US foreign policy, capitalising on a US President eager to fulfil promises to extricate troops from quagmires.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2018, with the headline 'Turkey deploys more troops around Kurdish stronghold in Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe