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‘French and US troops are operating on the ground,’ northern Syria official says

U.S. and French troops are operating in northern Syria, a senior official in the region told Kurdistan 24, as the French and U.S. governments offered differing and apparently contradictory messages about their deployments that could possibly serve to deter a Turkey-backed attack.

“Sometimes the NATO states deny the existence of their forces in the region to avoid any tension, but, actually, French and U.S. troops are operating on the ground in our region,” the Co-Chair of the Defense and Self-Protection Body in Cizîre canton Rêzan Gilo told Kurdistan 24.

According to the Iraq-based broadcaster, Gilo said that the troops are in Manbij and Raqqa, among other locations in northern Syria.

Responding to reports denying troops’ presence, Gilo said: “We tell of what we see on the ground, not the statements.

On Thursday, representatives of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) met French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris. At a press conference after the meeting delegates said that France would “reinforce” it’s military presence in the Manbij area in order to prevent a Turkey-led attack on the SDF.

However, Macron’s office said on Friday that France is not planning a new military operation in northern Syria “outside the international coalition against Daesh,” using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

Over recent days, there have been a number of unconfirmed reports that French troops were seen in Tal Abyad, a town bordering Turkey that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on March 19 threatened to include in an expanded Turkish military operation in northern Syria.

On March 22, there were unconfirmed reports that Turkey dismantled sections of its border wall in the area, an action that in the past has presaged cross-border military operations.

Turkey has repeatedly threatened to expand its campaign to other Syrian Kurdish-held territory as far as the Iraq border in the east, as well as against Manbij, where U.S. forces have been deployed since March 2017 to reassure the SDF and deter hostilities between factions on the ground.

On March 28, Turkey’s MGK national security council said that if the mainly-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) does not leave Manbij, Turkey would “not hesitate to take initiative by itself as it did in other regions,” an apparent reference to its recent Operation Olive Branch against the YPG that captured the mainly Kurdish Efrin enclave 100km west of Manbij, and to its Operation Eurphrates Shield, that in 2016 and 2017 captured Syrian territory to the north and west of the town.

Control of Manbij was handed to the SDF-aligned Manbij Military Council in August 2016 after the SDF captured the town from Islamic State.

“We’re taking the Turkish threats seriously,” Mohammed Abu Adel, the commander of Manbij Military Council told AFP on Tuesday.

“The international coalition has increased the number of its forces in Manbij,” Abu Adel said.

On Monday, military.com reported an unnamed Pentagon official as saying that a “planned reinforcement” had taken place in Manbij.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency claimed as many as 300 additional U.S. troops had been deployed north of Manbij near the front line that divides territory held by Turkey-backed Syria rebels and Manbij Military Council, but the Pentagon official said this estimate was overblown.

Anadolu also published a map of what it said were the locations of five French military bases in northern Syria.

Separately, CNN reported several U.S. defense and administration officials as saying that the U.S. military has recently been working on plans to send dozens of additional troops to northern Syria, despite President Donald Trump saying last Thursday that the U.S. would be coming out of Syria “very soon” and would “let the other people take care of it now.”

Much attention has focused on Manbij since last Thursday, when an explosion killed two personnel from the U.S.-led Coalition and injured five others. On Monday, Pentagon spokesperson Marine Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway said Sergeant Matt Tonroe, a U.K. special operations service member and Master Sergeant Johnathan J. Dunbar were “conducting a mission to kill or capture a known ISIS member when they were struck by an improvised explosive device.”

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