Syrian military arrives in flashpoint Kurdish-held town Manbij

Syria's military says it has taken control of the Kurdish-held town of Manbij, where Turkey has threatened an offensive. The announcement came shortly after the main Syrian Kurdish militia invited the government to seize control of Manbij to prevent an attack.

Move comes as Kurds fear Turkish army offensive after withdrawal of U.S. forces

Turkish-backed Syrian rebels ride on trucks with mounted weapons in the Manbij countryside on Friday. Kurdish fighters fear Turkish forces are preparing to launch a major offensive in the area after the U.S announced plans to remove its troops. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

The Syrian army said it entered Kurdish-held town of Manbij on Friday for the first time in years, after the Kurdish YPG militia urged Damascus to protect the town from the threat of Turkish attacks.

The announcement was quickly welcomed by the Kremlin, whose spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, called it a "positive step" that could help stabilize the situation.

Turkey's Defence Ministry said the Kurdish militia has no authority to invite other elements into the northern Syrian town of Manbij, and warned all parties to refrain from destabilizing the region.

Syria's entry into Manbij comes a day before Moscow is to host top Turkish officials to discuss the crisis in Syria after the United States announced its withdrawal. Russians officials have said they expect Syrian government troops to replace the U.S. troops when they withdraw.

Turkey, which views the Kurdish militia as a terrorist group, had been threatening a military operation against Manbij. 

"Turkey has been clear: it will not allow Kurds to control territory on its border," said CBC's Rebecca Collard, reporting from Beirut.

After the Syrian army announcement, Turkey-backed Syrian rebels stationed in nearby territory said they had begun moving together with Turkish forces toward the town in readiness for "the start of military operations to liberate" it.

Iran hailed the government announcement as a "major step toward establishing the government's authority" over all of Syria.

U.S. withdrawal

The threats from Turkey triggered the U.S. announcement it would withdraw troops from Syria. A timetable for the withdrawal has not yet been made public.

But the surprise U.S. decision rattled allies and the U.S. Syrian Kurdish partners, who scrambled to find new allies to protect their Kurdish-administered areas in north Syria.

The Syrian government has said it welcomes the Kurdish group returning under its authority. But government officials have said they will not consider an autonomous area, a main demand for the Kurds.
Members of the Kurdish internal security forces stand in front of a giant poster showing portraits of fighters killed while battling ISIS in Manbij on March 28. On Friday, Syria's military said it has taken control of the Kurdish-held town in northern Syria, where Turkey has threatened an offensive. (Hussein Malla/Associated Press)

The Syrian military declaration came shortly after the main Syrian Kurdish militia invited the government to seize control of Manbij to prevent a Turkish attack.

The development signals the two sides have agreed to the new arrangement. The Syrian military said it raised the state flag in Manbij.

But a resident of Manbij told The Associated Press there were no signs of Syrian troops in the town. And the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government forces have only reinforced front line positions outside the town held by Kurdish-led forces.

The U.S.-led coalition said the announcement that government troops had entered the town was "incorrect," and called "on everyone to respect the integrity of Manbij and the safety of its citizens."

Syrian government forces were ousted from Manbij in 2012, Collard said. It was first controlled by Syrian rebels before it was taken by ISIS.

"In 2016, U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters forced the militants from the city," Collard said. "And they have controlled it ever since — with degree of autonomy unacceptable to neighbouring Turkey."

The Syrian military said it was responding to calls from residents of Manbij and promised safety for all living there

A U.S-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council soldier, left, speaks with a U.S. soldier at a U.S. position near the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters in Manbij on April 4. U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Syria has rattled Washington's Kurdish allies. (Hussein Malla/Associated Press)

With files from CBC News and Reuters