Turkey-backed rebels reinforce Manbij front as US prepares to pull out

erdogan_trump [File] US President Donald Trump with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan | PTI

With US troops withdrawing from Syria, Turkish-backed Syrian forces have reinforced the area around the town of Manbij, a rebel spokesman said. The heightened military activity comes as Ankara and Washington have agreed to coordinate on the US withdrawal.

US President Donald Trump's abrupt decision has upended American policy in the region and set Turkey up for a broad push against Syrian Kurdish YPG forces across its border. "Yesterday units from the Syrian National Army headed towards the Manbij front and took preliminary positions (in preparation) for the battle," said Major Youssef Hamoud, the spokesman for the National Army, the main Turkey-backed rebel force in the area.

Residents and fighters in territory held by pro-Turkish rebels in northern Syria welcomed Trump's decision to withdraw US forces . The pro-Turkish rebels aim to unify disparate factions in north-west Syria. Manbij has been a major flashpoint between Ankara and Washington.

In June, the NATO allies reached an agreement that would see the YPG ousted from the town but Turkey has said the deal has been delayed.

President Tayyip Erdogan said on December 14 that Turkish forces would enter the town if the United States does not remove the Kurdish fighters. US forces still remain in Manbij, and the Turkey-backed fighters will not advance until they withdraw, Hamoud said. Turkey had already upped its threats of a new offensive against Syria's Kurds even before Trump announced his decision to withdraw troops.

The YPG has been the main US ally in the fight against Islamic State in Syria. Ankara says the YPG is a terrorist organisation and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency in Turkey since the 1980s. Erdogan has said Ankara will postpone a planned military operation against the YPG east of the Euphrates river in northern Syria following the US decision to pull out.

Erdogan vowed this week to eliminate both IS and Kurdish militias in northern Syria, on Friday saying an offensive would start in the coming months.

Erdogan was earlier said to have delayed the offensive Erdogan and Trump agreed in a phone call on Sunday to coordinate to prevent an authority vacuum from developing as the United States withdraws from Syria.  

With inputs from Reuters