Turkish-backed rebel Syrian forces have launched an operation to seize the strategic city of Manbij from Kurdish forces, as Ankara’s military offensive into northern Syria carves out a new front in the country’s years-long war.

Monday’s drive came as Syrian government troops started moving towards the country’s border with Turkey after Damascus forged an agreement with the Kurdish-spearheaded Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to fend off Ankara’s military push, in a Russia-brokered deal that once again reshaped alliances in Syria’s multilayered conflict 

“The battle of Manbij has begun,” Mustafa Seijari, an official with the Turkish-backed rebels, said in a post on Twitter on Monday, a day after the United States announced it was withdrawing its troops from the region.

Hours later, Syria’s state-run SANA news agency reported that forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had entered Manbij, without providing further details.

Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Akcakale on the Turkey-Syria border, said the apparent arrival of the Syrian government forces in Manbij was “strategically” significant.

“It lies on a crossroads, and so whoever controls Manbij controls supply lines that connect east and west in the northern part of Syria,” Khodr said, adding that the fight for the city represented the opening up of a “new front” in Syria’s war, currently in its eighth year. 

Manbij has frequently exchanged hands during the conflict. It was captured by anti-Assad rebels in 2012 before being seized by ISIL two years later, who then, in turn, lost the city to the SDF in 2016.

US retreat

The agreement with the Syrian government marked a major reversal for the Kurdish-led forces, a long-time ally of the United States that was now seen as moving closely to Iran and Russia, al-Assad’s main military backers.

The return of Syrian government forces to the region – where the SDF has sought to create an autonomous federation – could meanwhile further cement al-Assad’s hold over the country, and raise the risk of a direct clash confrontation between forces loyal to him and Turkish-led troops.

Erdogan, however, played down suggestions that his troops and allies would go to war with Russian-supported Syrian government forces, citing Monday Moscow’s “positive approach”. He added, however, that Turkey’s operation against Kurdish forces will intensify as he announced Manbij as the next target of the offensive, now in its sixth day.

“When Manbij is evacuated, we will not go in there as Turkey. Our Arab brothers, who are the real owners, the tribes … will return there. Our approach is to ensure their return and security there,” he told reporters before travelling to Azerbaijan on Monday.

INTERACTIVE: Syria control map OCT 9 2019

The developments came after the US said it would withdraw its troops from the northern Syria – where they had been allied with the SDF for the purpose of fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) armed group – branding the security situation in the region “untenable”.

The US retreat, announced on Sunday, followed an earlier decision by President Donald Trump to pull dozens of US troops from pockets in northeastern Syria a week ago in a move that effectively cleared the way for Turkey’s offensive.

‘Nightmare scenario’

Trump, who has been broadly condemned at home and abroad for the move, has said he wants to extract the US from “endless” wars in the Middle East.

“Let Syria and Assad protect the Kurds and fight Turkey for their own land,” he said on Monday in a series of posts on Twitter.

“Why should we be fighting for Syria … and Assad to protect the land of our enemy? Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte,” he added. “I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!”

After defeating 100% of the ISIS Caliphate, I largely moved our troops out of Syria. Let Syria and Assad protect the Kurds and fight Turkey for their own land. I said to my Generals, why should we be fighting for Syria….

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 14, 2019

Turkey says its operation is aimed at clearing the area of “terrorist” elements and create a so-called “safe zone” in which some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it hosts can be resettled. 

Ankara considers the Kurdish People’s Protection Group (YPG), which forms the backbone of the SDF, a “terrorist” group linked to Kurdish separatists inside Turkey.

Some 160,000 people have been displaced by fighting unleashed by Turkey’s offensive so far, the United Nations said on Monday, while scores of civilians and fighters have been killed.

Adding to a growing chorus of international concern over the unfolding humanitarian crisis, international aid agency Mercy Corps said on Monday it was suspending operations and evacuating foreign staff from northeast Syria, describing the situation there as a “nightmare scenario”.

“The humanitarian situation in northeastern Syria is going to dramatically worsen, and after almost a decade of conflict, millions of innocent civilians continue to be caught up in deadly violence,” Michael Bowers, Mercy Corps’ director for the Middle East said in a statement.

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