Exclusive: U.S. Cedes Syrian City to Russia in Battlefield 'Handover' as Turkey Tries to Take It

The U.S. military has begun a hasty exit from Syria's northern city of Manbij, and is set to help Russia establish itself there amid a Turkish attempt to defeat Kurdish-led, Pentagon-backed fighters at the strategic location, Newsweek has learned.

The U.S. was scheduled as of Monday to officially withdraw from Manbij within 24-hours, leaving the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces behind as two rival factions—the Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran, and the Turkey-backed Syrian insurgents opposed to it—sought to seize control of the strategic location. A senior Pentagon official told Newsweek that U.S. personnel, "having been in the area for longer, has been assisting the Russian forces to navigate through previously unsafe areas quickly."

"It is essentially a handover," the official said. "However, it's a quick out, not something that will include walk-throughs, etc., everything is about making out with as much as possible of our things while destroying any sensitive equipment that cannot be moved."

Contacted by Newsweek on Monday, no reply was returned from the Pentagon before publication.

Faced with a potentially imminent clash with Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces have chosen to realign themselves with the central government and its Russian backer, a partnership that would soon be put to the test.

As Syrian troops and allied militias moved to team up with Kurdish-led forces in the city, opposition fighters began their own advance toward Manbij. Reports have since begun to emerge of clashes between the two sides, signifying a new front in the country's multi-sided conflict.

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A Russian army vehicle patrols past people walking on the side of the road in the area of Arimah, just west of Manbij, a northern city near the Turkish border, January 17. Just a day earlier a suicide bombing claimed by ISIS killed four U.S. personnel in Manbij. AFP/Getty Images

Manbij, home to a majority-Arab, but diverse community that includes Kurds and other ethnic minorities, has long been on the frontier of Syria's multi-sided war. It was first seized by rebels and jihadis about a year after a nationwide uprising devolved into civil war in 2011. The United States had actively supported a number of the insurgents trying to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but refocused its policy as the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) spread across the country, taking Manbij in 2014.

The Pentagon partnered with the Syrian Democratic Forces in 2015, piercing through ISIS-held territory stretching across northern and eastern Syria and wrested control of Manbij from the militants in 2016. The mostly Kurdish militia also comprised of other ethnic minorities and Arabs immediately found itself at the heart of a new fight for survival.

Turkey launched a cross-border offensive later that year, mobilizing mostly Sunni Muslim Arab rebels in an attempt to take Manbij, but the United States offered its support for the self-ruling, majority-Kurd administration that was established by the Syrian Democratic Forces. Ankara considers some Kurdish fighters linked to a decades-long insurgency at home and has sought to neutralize their presence near the Turkish border.

Around the same time, the Syrian military made gains against opposition forces on the southern outskirts of the city, placing allied Russian personnel near their American counterparts. With the two major powers present, Turkey never managed to take Manbij.

Even after Turkey expanded its control over autonomous, mostly Kurdish-held territory elsewhere in far northwestern Afrin early last year, Manbij remained a sticking point for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. He demanded President Donald Trump pull U.S. troops as the two countries enter talks on establishing a "safe zone" along the Turkish-Syrian border.

Trump announced his decision to pull troops out of Syria in December of last year following a call with Erdogan, but plans stalled as the U.S. wrapped up its anti-ISIS campaign and expanded its mission to counter Iranian influence. Months later, following another call between Erdogan and Trump, the White House announced last week that the U.S. would relocate U.S. troops as Turkey launched another operation.

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Turkish soldiers and Turkey-backed Syrian rebels gather on the northern outskirts of the Syrian city of Manbij. October 14, as Turkey and its allies continue their assault on the mostly Kurdish-held border towns in northern Syria. Turkey wants to create a roughly 20-mile buffer zone along its border to keep Kurdish forces at bay and also to send back some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it hosts. ZEIN AL RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images

The Pentagon immediately expressed its opposition to the Turkish assault, calling on Erdogan to halt the advance. Trump, who initially signaled his support, threatened sanctions and called for a U.S. role in mediating between Turkish officials and Kurdish groups, but ultimately ordered a pullout as Syrian troops and rebels neared Manbij.

"And so we find ourselves as we have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies and it's a very untenable situation," Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CBS News on Sunday. "So I spoke with the president last night after discussions with the rest of the national security team and he directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria."

"It'll be a deliberate withdrawal and we want to conduct it as safely and quickly as possible," he added. "So we want to make sure we deconflict a pullback of forces. We want to make sure we don't leave equipment behind. So I'm not prepared to put a timeline on it, but that's our general game plan."

Like Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin has a direct line to Erdogan. The two leaders have repeatedly come together, along with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, as part of trilateral peace talks designed to end the war in Syria, but new tensions could emerge among them as their respective allies marched towards Manbij.

As the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported the first Syrian units entering the city, Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov said Monday that "what matters most of all is that the Turks act in keeping with the situation and that their actions pose no problems for what is most important—political settlement in Syria," according to the state-run Tass Russian News Agency. "This is what is most important for us."

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A map shows areas of control in Syria as of October 7, according to IHS Markit and BBC. Manbij is located near an intersection of rebel, government and Kurdish-led militia frontlines, near the Turkish border. Statista

Source: Statista