As confusion and tensions mount in the Syrian Kurdish city of Manbij, located just 70 miles north of Aleppo, US helicopters have been filmed hovering above the potential battle lines, even after widespread reports of a US troop pullout from the area and following Kurdish militias quickly calling on Assad's help to prevent a Turkish invasion.
This as Turkish Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs), other heavy equipment, and Turkish troop reinforcements were seen crossing into Syria. Currently, the Syrian Army is deployed in and around the city saying it stands ready to protect it from nearby pro-Turkish forces after Friday Syria's defense ministry announced it had "raised the flag of the Syrian Arab Republic" over Manbij for the first time after years of war as confirmed by Russian television footage from on the ground; however, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly refused to acknowledge the Syrian Army's presence, dismissing the Syrian statement as a “psychological action.”
However, Erdogan vowed to keep any possible Turkish action limited in press statements on Friday:
“In the current situation, we are still supporting the integrity of Syrian soil. Areas like Manbij belong to Syria. Once the terrorist organizations leave the area, we will have nothing left to do there.”
Also amid reports that American military advisers to the SDF — whose civilian council still appears in control of Manbij apparently with the blessing of Damascus — rapidly withdrew as pro-Turkish forces approached, the Pentagon on Friday issued a vague statement denying reports of "changes to military forces" saying they are "incorrect," suggesting US forces could still be in or around Manbij. The presence of US helicopters hovering over the province seem to confirm this.
As mentioned previously, though the situation remains highly fluid and dangerous for major escalation, especially as Turkish-backed jihadists have been for days mustered at the western border of the province declaring their willingness to "cleanse" the region of Kurds, there appears an uneasy status quo emerging and possible indirect negotiations happening between US, SDF, and Syrian Army forces, with broader negotiations between Turkey and Russia — the latter which controls the airspace above the province.
We have been told for years that the Free Syrian Army are moderate rebels. Ahrar Al-Sharqiya, an FSA group backed by Turkey, talking about slaughtering the "infidel Kurds" in Tal Abyad and #Manbij . Read the subtitles and judge for yourself how moderate they are. #Syria pic.twitter.com/nPSzotCQSs— Walid (@walid970721) December 29, 2018
On Saturday Russia and Turkey announced plans to coordinate ground operations in Syria following last week's surprise announcement of a full US troop draw down from Syria, according to statements by Moscow's top diplomat, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. When it comes to Manbij, for Erdogan this will require proof of a full withdrawal of armed Kurdish YPG fighters from the town and countryside.
Lavrov said after talks with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Moscow, "Of course we paid special attention to new circumstances which appeared in connection with the announced US military pullout." He explained further, "An understanding was reached of how military representatives of Russia and Turkey will continue to coordinate their steps on the ground under new conditions with a view to finally rooting out terrorist threats in Syria."
"We will continue active work (and) coordination with our Russian colleagues and colleagues from Iran to speed up the arrival of a political settlement in the Syrian Republic," he said in remarks also confirmed by Cavusoglu, according to the AFP.
However, the wild card that remains is whether or not US forces will fully and truly make a complete break from the theater. Considering the Trump administration is currently considering whether or not to leave US weapons with the Kurds, it appears a full pullout is indeed happening.