Washington should transfer control of the territories it is vacating in Syria to President Bashar Al Assad, Russia’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday, after Syrian troops backed by Russian forces sent reinforcement towards the city of Manbij in co-ordination with a Kurdish group controlling the area.
Meanwhile in eastern Syria, clashes between the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and ISIS intensified overnight, as the Kurdish-led alliance and coalition forces continue an operation to drive militants out of their last toe-hold in the country.
"An essential question arises: who will inherit control over the territories vacated by the Americans? Obviously, that should be the Syrian government, in accordance with international law," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova said, reported the state-run Sputnik news agency.
"However, right now we have no information on contacts between Washington and Damascus on the issue."
US President Donald Trump last week said he will begin pulling out nearly 2,000 American soldiers from Syria. It remains unclear how long the exit will take but officials estimate that US forces may begin withdrawing in 60 to 100 days.
Mr Trump's decision has emboldened Turkey to press ahead with plans to clear Manbij of Kurdish forces. Now, Turkey-backed rebels say they are preparing to launch an assault once US troops withdraw.
Syrian troops were positioned in areas to the west of Manbij on Tuesday, in anticipation of a potential offensive.
The deployment was co-ordinated with the US-backed Kurdish militia in Manbij, the spokesman for the Manbij Military Council said.
"The Russian army has restored the Syrian-Russian coordination centre to Arima village to the west of Manbij city, after its withdrawal from there a while ago," said Sharfan Darwish, spokesman for the Manbij Military Council.
The head of the MMC, Mohammed Abu Adel, told the Kurdish-run Kurdistan24 news website that Syrian troops have been in Arima since last year but they have recently sent reinforcements as Russian soldiers arrived in the town.
"Recent developments led to a reinforcement and increase of forces that were stationed there," said a separate statement by the MMC.
Manbij was seized in 2016 from ISIS by Syrian militia allied to the SDF, which controls roughly a quarter of Syria. Its capture was a milestone in the US-backed campaign against the militant group.
Manbij has been one area of friction between the US and Turkey, which has vowed to clear the area of the People's Protection Units. The Nato allies reached an agreement in June for the YPG to leave but Turkey says its implementation has been delayed.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier this month that Turkish forces would enter the town if the US does not remove the Kurdish fighters.
Mr Abu Adel, on Tuesday said there is no sign of an imminent Turkish attack on Manbij, despite claims by Turkish-backed rebels that they are pressing ahead with an assault.
"There is nothing going on, the situation is normal, the coalition forces are on the front line together with the MMC and there are no clashes," he told Kurdistan24 on Tuesday. "There is a lot of propaganda and provocations of future attacks on Manbij, but nothing is going on right now."
US forces are still patrolling Manbij. Videos posted on social media networks showed armoured vehicles stationed in the town.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Wednesday said that joint US-Turkish patrols have been dispatched to frontlines between Manbij and adjacent territory controlled by Ankara-backed rebels to prevent clashes.
The SOHR said that Turkey has instructed its rebel allies to temporarily hold-off on launching a planned attack.
A delegation representing Syria’s Kurds arrived in Moscow this week where they are meeting with Russian officials to discuss a possible plan to stop a Turkish offensive on Manbij.
Meanwhile, on the eastern banks of the Euphrates River clashes continued between ISIS militants and SDF fighters. The SOHR says clashes have intensified since Tuesday evening.
The war monitor says at least 44 ISIS militants have been killed in the area over the past 48 hours, including 19 militants who were killed by coalition airstrikes and 25 others who were killed in ground battles with the SDF.
At least eight SDF fighters also died in clashes, the SOHR said.
ISIS militants have stepped-up attacks on SDF forces in Syria's east since the US announced plans to withdraw, Europe-based activist Omar Abu Layla of the DeirEzzor 24 monitoring group told The National on Wednesday.
The SDF has been battling ISIS around the town of Hajin since September.
The Kurdish-led force liberated the town from militants earlier this month. Current battles are now taking place on the eastern flanks of Hajin in areas near the Iraqi border.
Iraq on Monday said it was considering sending troops across the border into Syria to defend the frontier from the threat of ISIS fighters.