The Syrian leftist Kurdish separatist movement, the People’s Protection Units, also known as the YPG, have ceded control of territory around the northern city of Manbij that they currently hold in order to protect themselves against advancing Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) opposition fighters.
The Manbij Military Council, part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), that is primarily controlled by the YPG and other Kurdish militants, announced that it had “transferred defence of the frontline” to forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad.
According to a statement released by the YPG-controlled group, they had already agreed this move with Russia. This could represent a further conflict between Russia and Turkey, who recently set aside many of their differences over their separate interventions in Syria and the downing of a Russian bomber by the Turkish air force.
Neither Turkey nor the Assad regime gave immediate comment on the Council’s announcement, but the territory ceded to the regime lie between Manbij and the town of Al-Bab, recently captured from Daesh in a Turkish-backed offensive involving the FSA.
Turkey, who backs the FSA opposition group, considers the YPG to be an extension of its own Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered to be a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Ankara has exchanged heated remarks with Washington over its support for the YPG, claiming that the US supports the YPG on one hand while denouncing its PKK sister organisation on the other.
Manbij as Turkey’s ‘new target’
The Manbij Military Council’s announcement comes as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said today that the YPG-controlled city was Ankara’s “new target” in its ongoing military campaign dubbed “Operation Euphrates Shield” which began late last year.
According to Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus, who spoke to MEMO last December, Euphrates Shield aimed to create a safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border free of Daesh and Kurdish extremist groups, including the YPG.
“After the liberation of Al-Bab from Daesh terrorists, Turkey’s new target in Syria is Manbij. Manbij is a city which belongs to Arabs, and the SDF must also not be in Raqqa,” the Turkish president said on his return flight from a diplomatic mission to Pakistan, highlighting the Arab character of the cities the Kurdish separatists are trying to claim as their own.
Last year, throughout February and May, Amnesty International and other human rights organisations accused the YPG of ethnically cleansing towns and cities in Syria’s north of the indigenous Arab population. The YPG’s attempts at demographic change has been criticised as an attempt to ethnically homogenise the territories they claim as part of Rojava, the Kurdish name for their unofficial statelet across northern Syria.
On 23 February, Al-Bab was finally cleared of Daesh militants after months of heavy fighting between the militant group on one hand, and Turkish forces and FSA fighters on the other.
FSA fighters, backed by Turkish forces, began to advance towards Manbij earlier this week, and yesterday reportedly captured several villages from YPG militants.