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Syrian Kurdish militia pulling out of a key town

From left, Syrian President Bashar Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu watch the troops marching at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria last year
Philip Issa

A SYRIAN Kurdish militia has announced it is pulling out of a key northern Syrian town in a move that could ease a serious rift between Nato allies Turkey and the United States.

The development followed an announcement on Monday from Turkey, which said it had reached an agreement with the US over the future of Manbij, a strategic but contested town in northern Syria near the Syria-Turkey border.

The Syrian Kurdish militia - the People's Protection Units, known by its Kurdish acronym YPG - said in a statement that its advisers had completed their mission to train the local forces, the Manbij Military Council, to defend the town.

Both the YPG and the Manbij Military Council are backed by the US.

Ankara considers the YPG a terror group tied to a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey and has demanded the Kurdish fighters leave Manbij since they captured the town from Islamic State in 2016 following months of fierce battles.

Turkey has been pushing for them to withdraw and has vowed to retake the town and other Kurdish-held territory along the border, but US troops stationed in Manbij have served as a deterrent.

The militia's pullout will avert the tense standoff between the YPG and Turkish-backed Syrian fighters, which has become a major sore point between Nato allies and a distraction for the US-led coalition seeking to defeat IS in Syria.

On Monday, the US and Turkey issued a joint statement saying they had "endorsed a roadmap" that aims to "ensure the security and stability of Manbij", in a sign that the Trump and Erdogan administrations were seeking common ground over their visions for north Syria.

Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who met with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, said Kurdish fighters would withdraw under a plan that would be implemented within six months.

He said Turkey and US officials would temporarily ensure security in Manbij.

The US has kept forces stationed in Manbij to deter a potential assault by Turkey and Turkish-backed forces.

But tensions have erupted elsewhere, including when Turkey bombed positions held by US-backed fighters in other parts of the autonomous Kurdish area in 2017.

The US is estimated to keep 2,000 forces stationed in north Syria, and it operates airstrips and outposts in the Kurdish-administered territory that stretches across Syria's north and east of the Euphrates River.

Manbij lies west of the river.

It was not immediately clear who would govern Manbij, and whether the US-supported Manbij Military Council would stay on in the city.

What seems certain is that Manbij will remain beyond the reach of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government in Damascus, which has been forced to surrender much of its authority in northern Syria to Turkey and the US-backed Syrian Kurdish militia as it fights rebels elsewhere.

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