This photo released on the Facebook page of the Military Council of Manbij City, shows U.S. troops based around the Syrian town of Manbij speaking with residents, in northern Syria, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018. (The Military Council of Manbij City via AP)

Turkey-backed Syrian fighters prepare to replace US forces

December 24, 2018 - 2:45 pm

BEIRUT (AP) — Turkish-backed Syrian fighters said Monday they are preparing to move into eastern Syria alongside Turkish troops once American forces withdraw, and that they are already massing on the front line of a town held by Kurdish-led forces.

The U.S. pullout will leave the oil-rich eastern third of Syria, currently controlled by Kurdish-led forces that the Americans have backed over the past four years, up for grabs with multiple parties seeking to move in.

A Syrian Kurdish official said the Kurdish militia is now reaching out for potential new allies following the U.S. withdrawal, underscoring the dire situation the group now finds itself in.

"We will deal with whoever can protect the ... stability of this country," said Ilham Ahmed.

The Kurdish militia partnered with the U.S.-led coalition since 2014 to fight Islamic State militants. Now, they are left to face a triple threat from Turkey, the Syrian government and IS. Turkey views the Kurdish fighters as terrorists because of their links to a Kurdish insurgent group inside Turkey.

Ahmed said her group is talking with the Russians and the Syrian government — both rivals of the United States — as well as European countries about ways to deal with the U.S. withdrawal. She didn't elaborate.

Abandoned by the U.S., the Kurds now face the dilemma of whether to try to hold on to the 30 percent of Syria they wrested from IS. The territory includes some of the richest oil fields in north and east Syria but also is home to large Arab populations.

The Kurds could pull back to the Kurdish-majority region in the far northeast but that would leave resources and Kurdish-majority pockets in the east isolated and vulnerable.

The militia could also negotiate with Damascus, allowing a return of government forces back into the east in hopes of gaining a level of self-rule for Kurds. The government has so far rejected the notion of such autonomy.

Syrian government forces have reportedly been massing troops in Deir el-Zour province, across the Euphrates River from Kurdish-held territory.

On Monday, Iraq said it could consider deploying troops inside Syria to protect Iraq from threats across its borders. Iraq's Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said his government is "considering all the options."

U.S. President Donald Trump has said the withdrawal from Syria will be slow and coordinated with Turkey, without providing a timetable. Turkey said the two countries will ensure there is no "authority vacuum" once the U.S. troops leave.

A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Sean Robertson, said the execute order for withdrawal has been signed but provided no further details.

Turkish Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said a U.S. military delegation is expected in Turkey this week.

Turkey says it and its Syrian Arab allies can replace the U.S. in preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State group.

Kalin said there will be no "step back, weakness, halting or a slowing down" of the fight against the IS. But Turkey has made clear it will not tolerate a contiguous Kurdish-held enclave along its border with Syria.

Turkey-backed Syria opposition groups said they have up to 15,000 trained fighters ready to deploy, alongside Turkish forces, in eastern Syria to replace U.S. troops.

Youssef Hammoud, spokesman for the Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces, said their fighters and weapons have been deploying on the front line with Manbij, a Kurdish-administered town in northern Syria where U.S. troops are based. They are preparing to first take Manbij, he said.

Manbij was at the center of an agreement the U.S. and Turkey reached in June under which Kurdish forces were to withdraw. In recent weeks Turkey said the U.S. was dragging its feet in implementing the deal and vowed to launch a new offensive against the Kurds.

Those threats and a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week appear to have triggered Trump's decision to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. forces based in Syria.

Hammoud said there is "no alternative" to Turkish forces and their allies replacing U.S troops.

"We are ready to fight Daesh," said Hammoud, using the Arabic acronym for IS. The extremists are largely confined to a remote desert enclave hundreds of miles (kilometers) to the southeast of Manbij.

Kurdish forces in Manbij "have taken measures to fend off any attack," said the spokesman for the Kurdish-led Manbij Military Council, Sharfan Darwish.

Turkey's armed forces have led two offensives into Syria since 2016 to push Islamic State militants and Kurdish forces back from the border.

Trump has claimed to have defeated IS, but the Kurdish fighters are still battling the extremists in the remote town of Hajin near the Iraqi border. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting displaced nearly 1,000 civilians on Sunday alone.

Ahmed, the senior Syrian Kurdish official, had just returned from a trip to France in which she called on Paris to play a larger role in Syria following the U.S. withdrawal.

"I urge Trump to go back on his decision inciting Erdogan against the Syrian people in general and the Kurdish people in specific and I call on him to return the favor," she said. Hundreds of Kurdish fighters died in the fight against IS.

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Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Philip Issa in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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