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Syrian Forces Enter Key Northern City, As Russia Hails Move

A Syrian man and his kids ride a motorcycle in Manbij earlier this year.
A Syrian man and his kids ride a motorcycle in Manbij earlier this year.

Syrian government forces entered the key northern city of Manbij for the first time in six years after a Kurdish-led militia said it invited Damascus to protect the town from the threat of a Turkish military offensive.

The development was hailed on December 28 by Russia, a key backer of the Syrian government, but condemned by Ankara, which opposes Syrian Kurds and is supporting rebel groups fighting the Damascus government.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) -- led militarily by the U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG militia -- seized Manbij from Islamic State (IS) militants in 2016.

Ankara sees the YPG as an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey and has vowed to crush it.

The SDF’s decision to ally with the government came after U.S. President Donald Trump pledged on December 19 to pull out all American troops from Syria.

The Syrian Army said in a statement on December 28 that its troops had raised the national flag in Manbij and would guarantee security "for all Syrian citizens and others present in the area."

In a statement, the YPG said it had "invited" Syrian troops to "assert control over the areas our forces have withdrawn from, particularly in Manbij, and to protect these areas against a Turkish invasion."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said more than 300 government forces were deployed in the Manbij area but had not entered the town, where U.S. and French forces are still believed to be stationed.

Russia hailed the move, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying the presence of government troops will "help in stabilizing the situation."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it was unclear if Syrian government troops had entered Manbij, but added that Syrian Kurds "don't have the right" to seek help from Damascus.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters