Russia on Tuesday said its troops were now patrolling an area separating the forces of the Syrian government and Turkey, a development that signals how Moscow is taking the role of key power-broker in the conflict there following the United States’ withdrawal.
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Russia's defense ministry said in a statement that Syrian army units had taken "full control" of Manbij and surrounding villages and that Russian military police were continuing to patrol along the northwestern edges of the area, including "along the line of contact between the Syrian Arab Republic and Turkey.” The statement said that Russia's military was "coordinating" with the Turkish side as a top Russian official said Moscow would prevent a clash between the two sides.
A U.S. official on Tuesday confirmed that all U.S. forces had left Manbij, The Associated Press reported. The Russian news agency, Ruptly, released video footage showing what it said was Syrian government forces driving into Manbij.
Two Russian journalists from an outlet with suspected ties to the Russian government posted videos on Tuesday showing themselves walking around a freshly abandoned American military outpost close to Manbij. One of the men, Oleg Blokhin, who has spent the last few years embedded with Russian and Syrian army units, filmed himself poking around the tents inside the base, noting that the air conditioning was still on in some and coming across American footballs left behind by the withdrawing American troops.
"Hello everyone from Manbij," Blokhin said, who has worked for the ANNA news agency, in the video posted on his Facebook page. "I am at the American military base, where until yesterday morning they were, and this morning already we are. Now we'll see how they lived and what they were doing."
The developments in Manbij appeared to underline how Russia is now moving swiftly to broker a new arrangement on the ground amid Turkey's offensive against the Kurdish militias that control northern Syria and which began after President Donald Trump said he would withdraw U.S. troops last week.
It comes a day after the Kurds said they had struck a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to move into Kurdish-held territory in a bid to halt the Turkish advance. Manbij is an important town that Turkey has threatened to seize for days, but Russia's statements on Tuesday, however, seemed to signal that it would not allow a Turkish attack.
The Kremlin's special presidential representative for Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, on Tuesday said that Russia would not allow a clash to happen between the Syrian government and Turkey around Manbij.
"First of all, I think that no one wants this kind of clash to happen; it's completely inadmissible. So, of course, we will not allow that," Lavrentyev told a press conference in Abu Dhabi where he was asked how Moscow would stop a confrontation.
Lavrentyev also confirmed that Russia had mediated the deal agreed between the Kurds and the Assad regime, confirming the negotiations had taken place at Russia's Hmeimim air base in Syria.
Russia has become the crucial power in Syria's civil war after it intervened in 2015 to rescue the Assad regime. Since then, it has helped Assad reclaim much of the country from rebels.
Turkey's invasion and the U.S. exit has presented Russia with an opportunity to achieve its goal of having Assad regain greater control of the territory held by the Kurds. Facing destruction from the Turks, the Kurds have been forced to make a deal with the regime.
"We're all hoping the situation in the northeast will normalize by means of dialogue between the Kurds and the central authorities," Lavrentyev said, noting that the Turkish offensive had "pushed" the Kurds into negotiating with Assad.
"If this trend prevails, it will be a big step toward the restoration of sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Syria," Lavrentyev added. But he warned that Russia considered the Turkish incursion "unacceptable"
The Turkish invasion targets the Kurdish militias that have established an autonomous region in northeastern Syria amid the chaos of Syria's civil war and who until last week were the U.S. key ally in defeating the so-called Islamic State. Turkey though has long viewed the emergence of the Kurdish territory as a threat to it, due to the Kurdish militias' ties to a Kurdish separatist insurgency on its territory.
Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops is viewed as a betrayal by the Kurds. Erdogan has vowed to take control of a 230-mile stretch along the border, which Turkey argues can then become a home for over 3 million Syrian refugees currently sheltering in Turkey.
The Kurds and others, however, have accused Turkey of carrying out ethnic cleansing, driving out Kurds to allow Arab refugees to take their place. The United Nations says 160,000 people so far have fled the fighting and possible war crimes have been reported by Turkish-aligned rebels, including the murder of a prominent Kurdish female politician.
The Turkish invasion has attracted international condemnation and, in the U.S., intense bi-partisan criticism of the Trump administration. Trump administration on Monday called on Erdogan to call an immediate cease-fire and imposed sanctions on the Turkish defense and energy sectors, as well as three senior Turkish officials. Vice President Mike Pence has said he will lead a delegation to Ankara to press the Turkish government to end the operation.
Turkey's president Tayyip Erdogan, however, has given little sign that he is willing to halt the current advance and on Tuesday rejected the American calls for a ceasefire.
“They say ‘declare a ceasefire’. We will never declare a ceasefire,” Erdogan told reporters on a flight returning from Baku. They are pressuring us to stop the operation. They are announcing sanctions. Our goal is clear. We are not worried about any sanctions,” he said. Earlier Erdogan pledged to attack Manbij within days.
On Tuesday though, Erdogan held a telephone call with Russia's president Vladimir Putin, according to statements from both men's offices, that showed little indication the conflict was yet causing a major split between the two. During it Erdogan told Putin that Turkey's operation would seek to ensure Syria's "territorial integrity", his office said. Putin meanwhile invited Erdogan to make a working visit to Moscow in the coming days.