Russia: Syrian government must take over eastern Syria

December 26, 2018 - 7:09 am

BEIRUT (AP) — Russia's Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that Moscow expects the Syrian government to take over the areas where the U.S. troops are currently deployed following their withdrawal.

Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova emphasized that the territories in eastern Syria should be handed over to the Syrian government in line with international law. She said Moscow is unaware of any details of the planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria, but added that the move would help peaceful settlement in Syria if implemented.

"If the troop withdrawal happens, it would have a positive impact on the situation," Zakharova said at a briefing.

U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly announced the pullout from Syria last week, surprising allies and sparking the resignation of two of his top aides. The U.S. backed the Kurdish-led forces in oil-rich eastern Syria for four years in the fight against Islamic State group militants, and its withdrawal will leave the area up for grabs.

Turkey said Tuesday it is working with the United States to coordinate the withdrawal of American forces but remains "determined" to clear U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters from Manbij in northeastern Syria.

Asked about Turkey's plans to launch an attack on the area, Zakharova answered that Russia and Turkey have closely coordinated their actions in Syria, "including military counter-terrorist operations," but wouldn't elaborate further.

A spokesman for Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters said Wednesday that his fighters would not accept the return of government forces to areas in eastern Syria, including Manbij town, after U.S. forces withdraw.

Youssef Hammoud, spokesman for the Syrian National Army, which is expected to be a core force in a Turkish campaign in eastern Syria, said Wednesday the return of government forces to the area would trigger "a disaster and a catastrophe" with a new wave of refugees and the displaced people.

Hammoud said one main aim of the Turkey-led operation to reclaim eastern Syria is to create the conditions and space for the return of refugees and displaced persons, who fled the Syrian government.

The SNA said up to 15,000 of its fighters are prepared to enter the areas once the U.S. pulls out.

For weeks, Turkey has been threatening to launch a new offensive against the Kurdish fighters, who partnered with the U.S. to drive the Islamic State group out of much of northern and eastern Syria. Ankara views the Kurdish forces as terrorists because of their links to an insurgent group inside Turkey.

Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters have been moving to the outskirts of Manbij and the Turkish army continues to dispatch tanks, artillery and other equipment to the border and an area administered by Turkey in northwestern Syria, according to Turkish media reports.

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