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Pentagon won’t say if it will move US troops as Turkish offensive in Syria eyes Manbij

A screen grab shows U.S. forces patrolling on the outskirts of the Syrian town of Manbij, in Aleppo province, Syria, according to a video posted in March 2017. U.S. military officials said Thursday, June 29, that U.S.-backed fighters have seized the last road into Raqqa, Syria.

ARAB 24 NETWORK/AP

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 25, 2018

WASHINGTON — Senior Pentagon officials on Thursday said they were aware of media reports that Turkey had requested the United States remove its military forces from a key northern Syrian town, but they declined to say whether they would comply with their NATO ally’s request.

Turkey wants the United States to remove its troops remaining around Manbij, where it intends to shift the focus of its anti-Kurdish assault along its border, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Thursday, according to local media. The United States has maintained a small force around Manbij since U.S.-backed troops captured it from Islamic State fighters in the summer of 2016.

However, the United States is not immediately prepared to withdraw its forces from the strategic city, said Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff, leaving open the potential of a battlefield showdown between allied militaries.

American troops “will either stay or they will go. I don’t know what the answer will be,” McKenzie said Thursday. He added that decision would rely heavily on State Department policy for the region.

If it becomes necessary, “U.S. troops…will be able to defend themselves,” he said.

Long-stressed, the relationship between the United States and Turkey has strained further since Turkey launched an offensive Saturday targeting Kurdish groups, including the YPG, an organization the Pentagon has leaned heavily on in its fight against ISIS. While the United States has continued to support the YPG, including providing weapons to its fighters still combatting ISIS in southeast Syria, Turkey views the group as a security threat with close ties to the PKK, a Kurdish terrorist organization.

McKenzie said the U.S. military does not train or provide weapons to Kurdish groups in the Afrin pocket, where Turkey began its offensive over the weekend, or forces elsewhere in Syria not focused on fighting ISIS, such as near Manbij.

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said Turkey should discontinue its operations in northern Syria, calling them a distraction from the fight against ISIS.

“The common threat to all of us is ISIS, and the job is not done, so we need to get everyone focused on that, and we will continue to talk to Turkey,” White said Thursday at the Pentagon. “We ask that Turkey de-escalate.”

The United States officially has maintained some 2,000 military troops in Syria and has said those forces will remain in the country even after ISIS is defeated. American troops have regularly patrolled in the region around Manbij since its liberation, often to ensure stability as pro-Turkish forces and U.S.-backed forces have skirmished.

So far, the tensions in northern Syria have not directly impacted the ongoing fight against ISIS in the middle Euphrates River valley, but McKenzie said the United States is closely monitoring signs of YPG fighters, which make up a portion of the American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, leaving to fight against the Turkish offensive.

The YPG-led SDF is the primary ground force fighting the less than 1,000 ISIS fighters who remain in a small portion of the valley in eastern Syria, according to the Pentagon.

dickstein.corey@stripes.com

Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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