Turkey masses troops near Kurdish-held Syrian town

SARAH EL DEEB and ZEYNEP BILGINSOY
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This photo released on the Facebook page of the Military Council of Manbij City, shows U.S. troops based around the Syrian town of Manbij speaking with residents, in northern Syria, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018. (The Military Council of Manbij City via AP)

BEIRUT (AP) — Turkey is massing troops near a town in northern Syria held by a U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led force, a war monitor said as Turkish media reported Sunday new reinforcements crossing the borders.

The Turkish buildup comes even though Turkey said it would delay a promised offensive in eastern Syria in the wake of President Donald Trump's decision this week to withdraw U.S. troops.

Trump tweeted on Sunday that he had a "long and productive" call with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan in which they discussed "the slow & highly coordinated" pullout of U.S. troops from the area. This is the two leaders' second phone conversation in 10 days. U.S. military officials are scrambling to come up with a schedule for the withdrawal of an estimated 2,000 troops.

A statement from the Turkish presidency said the two leaders agreed to coordinate militarily and diplomatically to ensure the U.S. pullout from Syria does not lead to an "authority vacuum."

Trump's decision, announced last week after a call with Erdogan, surprised his allies and own experts, sparking the resignation of two of his top aides. He had asked for an immediate withdrawal, but experts convinced him that they needed time to work out a timetable.

The Turkish IHA news agency reported that a convoy of Turkish troops — a commando unit — had been sent into Syria overnight.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the reinforcements were sent to the front line with Manbij, where U.S. troops have been based. The Observatory said 50 vehicles crossed into Syria — carrying troops and equipment.

A Turkish military official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government protocol, said the military reinforcements were dispatched to the areas administered by Turkey in northern Syria, without elaborating.

The spokesman for the Kurdish-led Manbij Military Council, Sharfan Darwish, said Turkish reinforcements have arrived in the area. "We are taking necessary measures to defend ourselves if we are attacked," he said without elaborating.

U.S. troops based around Manbij patrolled the town and surrounding area on Sunday and were photographed speaking with the residents.

Turkey has welcomed Trump's decision. Ankara views the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces as an extension of the insurgency within its borders. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to dislodge the Kurdish fighters from along its border with Syria.

The U.S. has since 2014 partnered with the Syrian Kurdish militia to drive out the Islamic State group, a partnership that soured relations between Ankara and Washington.

Allaying some of Turkey's fears was a deal reached in June over Manbij. According to the deal, the Kurdish militia would withdraw from Manbij and U.S. and Turkish troops would patrol the area as a new administration for the mixed Arab-Kurdish town is elected.

But Ankara says the U.S. and the Kurds didn't live up to their end of the deal and that it would start an offensive in eastern Syria to drive out the militia. Turkey already has troops in northwestern Syria and has backed Syrian fighters there to clear towns and villages of IS militants and Kurdish fighters.

After Trump's decision, Erdogan said he would delay the eastern Syria offensive and would work on plans to clear out IS from the region.

A spokesman for the Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighting group said the continued Turkish and allied forces buildup is to prevent Syrian government troops from taking advantage of the tension in the area to seize territory.

Youssef Hammoud, spokesman for the Syrian opposition fighters, accused the Kurdish militia of reaching out to the Syrian government to replace U.S. troops if they withdraw.

Darwish dismissed the claims as "untrue," calling them "old accusations" from the rival Syrian groups.

Also Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron said he "deeply regrets" Trump's decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria and warned it could have dangerous consequences.

Macron showered praise on U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who quit in the wake of Trump's unexpected move. "An ally should be reliable, coordinate with other allies. Mattis understood this," Macron said during a trip to Chad.

Macron said that the troop withdrawal endangers Kurdish fighters, who were instrumental in the U.S-led coalition's fight against IS militants.

"We should not forget ... what we owe to those who died on the ground fighting terrorism," he said, referring to the SDF. "The SDF is fighting against the terrorism that fomented attacks against Paris and elsewhere ... I call on everyone not to forget what they have done."

Macron did not say what France's military will do next in Syria. Kurdish officials met with a French presidential adviser Friday, and one asked France to play a larger role in Syria following the American withdrawal.

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Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.