Major moves around Manbij on December 28 put the city at the center of the US withdrawal in a spotlight, this post was typed as it happened, final updates and statements at the bottom.
The unfolding events: December 19-28
Turkish media sought to highlight the role of the YPG in Manbij, claiming they were fortifying the city and digging tunnels and preventing people from leaving between December 20 and 26.
Syrian regime forces began inching closer to the city after the US withdrawal announcement on December 19. As the SDF reached out to France, Damascus and Russia, the French forces continued patrols near the city. In addition Russia appeared to indicate that parts of eastern Syria should be turned over to the regime.
The SDF had long wondered if the US might change its stance. When Trump did decide the SDF had already been in consultations with the Syrian regime. According to a report in The Washington Post in mid-December “Kurdish officials say they are keeping open channels of communication to the Syrian Gov in case Trump changes his mind again. “Everything is very complicated & no one knows which way to turn. We don’t know who is against whom & who is w whom,” said Amjad Othman, an SDF official.
On December 23 it appeared Trump was seeking a coordinated pullout. Charles Lister noted “Gathering from Trump’s latest tweets on Syria, it sounds like Turkey’s Erdogan has convinced him to slow the pace of withdrawal; perhaps in order to facilitate Arab control of NE border areas (maybe Arab SDF + some Ankara tribal allies). Possibly a next best compromise.”
The SDF also looked to Egypt for discussions. Amjad Othman said ““We hope the Egyptian government can help prevent a conflict between the Syrian government and the SDF and help find a political solution for Syria to prevent a Turkish attack on the east of the Euphrates,”
December 26: Russia says Syrian government should control areas as US withdraws
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maris Zakharova issued a statement.
Friday morning, December 28: Rumors of Syrian troops in Manbij
On December 28 the Syrian regime forces were rumored to move closer to the city as social media accounts claimed they had entered the city or areas near it. But others noted that the story appeared in part misleading or fabricated.
The overall crises and chaos of the unfolding potential operation could spark a round of fighting. The US said it wants to leave in close coordination with Turkey.
Update: YPG says it withdrew as Syrian army approaches areas.
A statement by the YPG appeared to indicate that they had withdrawn from Manbij on Friday morning.
Statement to public opinion
In light of the ongoing threats by the Turkish state to invade northern Syria, destroy the area and expel its peaceful inhabitants, as happened in Graplas, Azzaz, Bab and Afrin. We in the People’s Protection Units announce that after we withdrew from the Manbaj area in the east of the Euphrates and other areas. So we call on the Syrian state to which we belong to the land and the people and borders to send their armed forces to receive these points and protect the area of Manbaj against Turkish threats. 28-12-2018, General Command of People Protection Units.
A statement by the General Command of the Syrian Army reported on state media appeared to confirm the army was operating near Manbij.
The details were reported by Al-Hurra, which appears to be the only pan-Arab network who actually has a correspondent inside Manbij. “The Syrian army entered the town of Al-Arima (about 20 km west of Manbij) and that it advanced on the outskirts of Manbij and did not enter the city itself.”
Turkey responded by accusing Assad of running a “psychological operation.”
On Friday afternoon Turkey responded to the reports. “But nothing is certain yet according to Turkish intelligence and Russian officials, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Friday,” Daily Sabah reported. “Erdoğan underlined that once terrorist organizations leave northern Syria, Turkey will have nothing to do there.’ In the current situation, we are still supporting the integrity of Syrian soil. These areas belong to Syria.'”
Turkey is scheduled to send a high-level delegation to Moscow to discuss Syria on Saturday. It was supposed to include Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, as well as Ibrahim Kalin, the MIT’s Fidan and Defense Minister Akar.
“This is a psychological operation. They have raised a flag. An hour ago I spoke with the intelligence, there is nothing definite yet. Tomorrow morning our delegation will go to Moscow. Foreign ministers, intelligence, and defence ministers will discuss the situation from all angles there. After that, I will hold phone talks with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. My visit to Sochi or Moscow is also possible”, Erdogan told reporters, according to Sputnik.
Iranian news media also reported the handover, with Tasnim claiming that “the Kurdish armed groups have left Manbij, with the arrival of Syrian army forces, the excuse for Turkey to occupy Manbib has disappeared, Turkey has been sending troops to the region in recent days….The Kurdish group called the Syrian Democratic Forces has emphasized that we will work with Damascus to close the road to Turkey, and then we will solve our internal problems without interference from others.”
Russian embassy and others respond
A statement sent to Russian embassies notes the following: “
#USwithdrawal raises the question of who will control territories left by Americans. It is obvious that it must be the legitimate Syrian Government.”
Julian Ropcke notes “hard to believe, US soldiers and Assad soldiers will now greet each other in Manbij while Russian soldiers guard the outside of the city … Turkey seems to have overplayed its hand here. The Trump-Erdogan call led to unforeseeable consequences for all and pushed Ankara out.” Kyle Orton also responded. “Turkey might accept a transition in Minbij from YPG/PKK to the Asad/Iran system, perhaps presented as a deal with Russia. But she also might not. Iran sent its Shia jihadists to support the PKK in Efrin, and the Turks vaporized them. The balance of power is with Ankara here.”
The SOHR noted “these forces were deployed along the contact lines between the areas of presence of the Turkish Forces and their loyal factions, and between the areas of control of Manbij Military Council, Jaysh al-Thowwar, and the Americans.”
What comes next?
Nicholas Heras: The idea that Turkey can take over one-third of Syria from the Coalition and become some type of Iran-blocking force thereis not a good one. All that would accomplish is the destruction of the SDF in the short term. There is no easy fix to the IRGC in Syria
Syrian rebels still threatened an operation while “Erdogan says Turkey has no business in Syria’s Manbij if YPG militia leaves.” Opposition groups posted a notice on Twitter and video claimed to show members of the “Hamza brigade” driving to the front line. Other accounts showed similar formations. They posted video and photos.
Whatever happens in Manbij is only one part of the 460km of border that Turkish forces now face the SDF along. Many will be watching what comes next.
Coalition: It never happened
The US-led Coalition released a statement in the late afternoon contesting the claims of changes in Manbij. “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.”
Local video shows Manbij Military Council still in control.
The Syrian rebel forces are still preparing, according to videos posted.