CNN – Some of America’s most critical allies in the fight against ISIS have made a deal to cede territory to Russian and Syrian government troops in northern Syria, the Pentagon confirmed Friday.
The Manbij Military Council, a key US ally in Syria, has permitted Russian and Syrian regime forces to take over villages near the town of Manbij, according to a defense official.
US military officials said the purpose of the deal was not immediately clear. But as a result, US military advisers could soon find themselves in close proximity to Syrian and Russian troops. The advisers are currently training local forces in Manbij to combat ISIS in the vicinity, part of the approximate 500-strong contingent of American Special Operations Forces in Syria.
The Manbij Military Council has safe-guarded the town following the defeat of ISIS there in August by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mix of Arab and Kurdish fighters that are backed by US and coalition air power and make up part of the council. The SDF has largely sought to avoid conflict with Damascus and its Russian backers, focusing primarily on ISIS.
The town is considered to be of immense tactical value due to its proximity to supply routes into and out of Syria. Its capture was hailed by US commanders as a major victory.
Russia’s ability to strike a deal with one of America’s closest allies in the fight against ISIS, however, could be viewed as a sign of eroding US influence in Syria. It could also lay the ground work for further cooperation between Washington and Moscow in the civil-war-wracked country, something President Donald Trump has expressed openness to in the past.
The Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed the move Friday, saying in a statement on Facebook that Syrian troops entered the area March 3 following the signing of the agreement.
US Navy Capt. Jeff Davis said the development “has not changed anything we are doing, which is we continue to focus on defeating ISIS.”
But the battle space has already proven congested, with Russian warplanes accidentally striking US-backed rebels as US troops were some three miles away, according to Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of the US-led counter-ISIS coalition.
“Essentially three armies and an enemy force have all converged within the same grid square. It’s very difficult and complicated,” he said.
The new agreement is likely to further complicate the picture in Northern Syria, increasing the potential for an armed clash between America’s NATO ally Turkey and the combined Russia and Syrian regime forces.