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US Steps Up Protection for Coalition Forces in Northern Syria's Manbij

By Rikar Hussein, Zana Omar March 30, 2018

As part of the global coalition against Islamic State, the United States this week increased its special operations troops in the flashpoint town of Manbij in northern Syria.

In an email Thursday to VOA, Col. Thomas F. Veale, a U.S. military spokesperson and public affairs director for the coalition, said the recent deployment is a protection measure to ensure the safety of coalition troops in the area.

"Coalition forces are establishing a joint coordination mechanism for operations there, through the coalition's official relationship with the Manbij Military Council," Veale said.

Manbij, in northern Syria, has recently become another major point of disagreement between the U.S. and its NATO ally, Turkey, over the presence of the Kurdish militant group People's Protection Units, also known as the YPG.

Turkey says the YPG is a terrorist organization, alleging the group is linked to Kurdish separatists inside Turkey, known as the PKK, which was designated a terror organization by both the U.S. and the EU. But the U.S. denies the connections between the PKK and the YPG and considers the YPG to be a key ally in the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State terror group in the region.

Turkey's National Security Council, chaired by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a statement on Wednesday, threatened that Ankara "will take action" if the YPG fighters do not withdraw immediately from the region.

"In the meeting, it is stated that the terrorists in Manbij should be removed from the area, otherwise Turkey will not hesitate to take initiative by itself as it did in other regions," the statement read.

The Turkish military and its allied rebels this month captured the Kurdish town of Afrin in northwest Syria from the YPG in an operation code named Operation Olive Branch, that started on January 20.

The U.S. has said it is "deeply concerned" that the operation has displaced thousands of civilians and diverted attention from the more important task of eliminating Islamic State.

Officials of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) say a Turkish-led attack on Manbij could encourage thousands of fighters, especially those recruited from the town, to leave battlefields against Islamic State remnants in eastern Syria and move to the west to push back against the Turkish army and its allied rebels military offensive.

Najim Muhammad, the deputy commander of the Manbij Military Council, said the U.S.-led coalition has assured them it will protect the town.

"We are cooperating with the global coalition towards the security and safety of Manbij," Muhammad told VOA. "Our coordination is very strong."

Muhammad said he was concerned that the Free Syrian Army rebels are emboldened by the Turkish support and are amassing forces in northwest Manbij.

The Turkish pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper Tuesday reported that a force of 12,000 militants from the Free Syrian Army "are waiting for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to initiate the operation."

Col. Veale of the U.S. military refused to disclose the number of U.S. special operations troops recently deployed to the area, but said "the level of force protection is commensurate to the threat."

A VOA reporter in northern Syria who visited the site said the U.S. troops are stationed mostly across the Sajur river area in northwest Manbij, bordering near the Turkey-backed Syrian fighters.

The U.S. troops in Manbij came under direct attack by Turkish-backed rebels in August 2017. The Pentagon then said the U.S. troops returned fire but there were no casualties on either side.

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