Rikar Hussein and Zana Omar - VOA News
WASHINGTON / MANBIJ — A high-level U.S. delegation, including diplomats and members of the U.S.-led coalition, visited Manbij on Thursday in the wake of a disagreement with Turkey over the fate of the town in northern Syria.
U.S. Maj. Gen. Jamie Jarrard, American Special Operations commander in Syria and Iraq, and former U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain William Roebuck met with residents and local officials of the town, which has been under control of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) since the removal of the Islamic State in 2016.
VOA footage of the visit shows the delegation with leaders of the SDF touring the local market and talking to residents.
A VOA reporter in northern Syria who was present during the tour said the delegation reassured the local population of U.S. support before meeting with city officials.
Ibrahim Qaftan, co-chair of Manbij Executive Council and an attendee at the meeting, told VOA that American officials said the U.S. has no intention of withdrawing from the town.
"They wanted to tell the people of this area that we are with you and do not be worried for Manbij," Qaftan said. "This is what the people and the administration of this town wants to hear."
Point of Contention
The town has recently become a major point of contention between the U.S. and its NATO ally, Turkey, over the presence of Kurdish militants. Turkey has threatened to expand its military operation in the northwestern region around Afrin to Manbij, in pursuit of the Kurdish groups.
Officials in Ankara say they view as an unacceptable threat to their national security that the town is controlled by the Kurdish armed force known as the People's Protection Units (YPG). Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization, alleging the group is linked to Kurdish separatists inside Turkey, known as the PKK, which is designated a terror organization by both the U.S. and the EU.
But the U.S. denies the connections between the PKK and the YPG, and considers the YPG to be a key ally in the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State terror group.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday spoke by phone to discuss regional issues.
A statement from the White House said the two leaders reaffirmed "the importance of strong relations between the United States and Turkey, as NATO allies and strategic partners."
Erdogan on U.S., Russia
According to the Turkish president's office, Erdogan said he told Trump that Turkey was not willing to back down from expanding its operation in northern Syria, including in Manbij.
"Last night, I spoke with U.S. President Trump on these issues. I discussed the same things with [Russia President Vladimir] Putin two days ago. I told them: 'We won't take steps backward from here. We are on the side of the suffering and the oppressed,' " he said in an address at a meeting of his Justice and Development Party in Istanbul on Friday.
Turkish officials have said that Ankara and Washington had reached an "agreement" or "understanding" over the town and the U.S. has agreed to pull out Kurdish fighters, a claim dismissed by U.S. officials.
Asked to comment on a statement by Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesperson for Erdogan, regarding the alleged deal, U.S. Department of State spokesperson Heather Nauert on Tuesday said, "Well, that's funny, because no agreement has been reached."
"U.S. forces are located in Manbij," Nauert told reporters in another statement Thursday. "We have made it very clear with the Turkish government that we have a right to defend ourselves, the U.S., along with its coalition partners on the ground."