BEIRUT (Reuters) – A convoy of Syrian Kurdish fighters has pulled out of the flashpoint area of Manbij in northern Syria, close to territory controlled by Turkey, Syria’s defense ministry said on Wednesday.
Some 30 km (20 miles) from the Turkish border, the town occupies a critical spot on the map of the Syrian conflict, near the junction of three separate blocks of territory that form spheres of Russian, Turkish and – for now – U.S. influence.
“According to information, approximately 400 Kurdish fighters have left Manbij so far,” the Syrian defense ministry said. Their departure was in line with an agreement “for the return of normal life to the area of northern Syria,” it said.
The ministry showed online a video of dozens of vehicles traveling along an unmade road carrying armed fighters, some waving the flags of the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia and its female counterpart the YPJ.
The YPG is the strongest element in the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), a coalition of militias that the United States has backed in its campaign against Islamic State, helping it capture swathes of north and east Syria.
Fearing an attack by Turkey after a U.S. pull-out from Syria, the YPG asked Syrian government forces to deploy in the area around Manbij.
There was no immediate comment from the YPG or the SDF on the withdrawal or on how many fighters might remain in Manbij.
Turkey regards the YPG as a terrorist group tied to the PKK inside its own borders, and has staged incursions into Syria in support of Syrian rebels to push it from the Turkish frontier.
As a result of one of those incursions, Turkish-backed forces have held an area bordering Manbij since 2016, and Ankara has repeatedly demanded that the YPG leave the area and cross to the east bank of the Euphrates.
The YPG previously announced it had pulled its forces out of Manbij and has said fighters still in the area belonged to a local militia allied to the SDF.
U.S. forces have underpinned stability in Manbij since Islamic State’s defeat there in 2016, and have conducted joint patrols with Turkish forces since November in an effort to allay Ankara’s security concerns.
Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Richard Balmforth