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Kurdish Forces Meet Turkish Demands, Leave Northern Syrian Town


FILE - Smoke and flame rise after what fighters of the Syria Democratic Forces said were U.S.-led airstrikes on the mills of Manbij where Islamic State militants are positioned, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, June 16, 2016.

FILE - Smoke and flame rise after what fighters of the Syria Democratic Forces said were U.S.-led airstrikes on the mills of Manbij where Islamic State militants are positioned, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, June 16, 2016.

A Syrian Kurdish militia withdrew its forces Wednesday from the strategic northern Syrian town of Manbij, three months after helping to free it from Islamic State control.

U.S. officials and commanders from the Kurdish People's Protection Units, known as the YPG, said the Kurdish force would head south to help in the fight for Raqqa, IS's de facto capital in Syria.

The move satisfies Turkish demands that YPG fighters move east of the Euphrates River. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist organization and an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.

Ankara fears that a strong Kurdish entity in northern Syria will empower Kurdish rebels in Turkey who are engaged in a bloody conflict with Turkish forces.

The YPG said it was turning control of Manbij over to a local military council trained by the Kurds with U.S military assistance.

"These forces now have military and security institutions and they can protect the people of Manbij from all dangers," the YPG said in a statement.

Manbij, Syria

Manbij, Syria

IS driven out in August

Manbij is an Arab-majority town in Syria's Aleppo province that had been under IS rule since 2014. Backed by U.S. air support, Kurdish forces drove IS from the town in August.

Since then, U.S. officials have worked toward a peaceful transition that satisfied Turkish demands and left Manbij under local Arab control.

On Twitter, U.S. envoy Brett McGurk on Wednesday hailed the transition as a "milestone."

"All YPG units to depart Manbij and return east of Euphrates after local units complete training to maintain security after ISIL," said McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the U.S.-backed coalition to counter IS.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters Wednesday before heading to Pakistan that he was sure the U.S would make good on plans to transition Manbij from Kurdish control.

"They said they would keep that promise. And we expect and hope that they will do so," he added.

Turkey has begun a separate operation against IS fighters in Syria. Turkey-backed Syrian rebels have closed in on IS fighters in the town of al-Bab in Aleppo province. The anti-IS rebels cleared the border town of Jarablus from IS fighters in September.

Part of U.S. strategy

Giving control back to Manbij locals was as much a part the U.S. strategy as mollifying Ankara's objections to the YPG, analysts said.

"The YPG withdrawal from Manbij was mandated by the U.S. mainly to keep with the schedule of building up local security forces from Manbij to hold the city and its surrounding areas," said Nicholas A. Heras, a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

"Turkey's opposition to the YPG is built into the U.S. strategy, but it does not guide the U.S. strategy," he said.

FILE - A fighter from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) poses for a photo at sunset in the Syrian town of Ain Issi, some 50 kilometers north of Raqqa, during clashes between IS group jihadists and YPG fighters, July 10, 2015.

FILE - A fighter from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) poses for a photo at sunset in the Syrian town of Ain Issi, some 50 kilometers north of Raqqa, during clashes between IS group jihadists and YPG fighters, July 10, 2015.

The withdrawal from Manbij was made "in order to allow the YPG to continue to be a leading component of the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] displacement force to remove [IS] from areas closer to Raqqa," Heras said.

The Kurdish-led offensive on Raqqa was launched two weeks ago.

With the U.S. air support, the forces have made significant advances, pushing IS from much of the northern countryside of Raqqa. They are reportedly 35 kilometers from Raqqa city's limits.

VOA's Uzay Bulut contributed to this report from Washington.

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