Updated Sept. 1, 2016 12:36 p.m. ET
Syrian Kurds battling Islamic State have heeded U.S. calls to vacate an area of northern Syria under Turkish assault but reserve the right to operate anywhere in the country they choose, their political leader said Thursday.
The Kurdish forces, known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, are no longer fighting around the border town of Jarablus, said Saleh Muslim, co-president of the Democratic Unity Party, speaking in Brussels after a news conference at the European Parliament.
Besides withdrawing from the Jarablus area, the Kurdish fighters have also pulled out from the strategic town of Manbij and out of other embattled areas west of the Euphrates, said Mr. Muslim, whose party administers northern Syria’s Kurdish-controlled regions.
The YPG have emerged as Washington’s the most effective ally in battling Islamic State in Syria, pushing the extremist group from large parts of northern Syria and seizing most of the 565-mile stretch along the Turkish border.
Yet the expansion of Kurdish-controlled territory in northern Syria has stoked concern in neighboring Turkey, which opposes Kurdish expansionism along its border. Ankara is a member of the U.S.-led military coalition fighting Islamic State but considers the YPG a national security threat.
Last week, Syrian rebels backed by Turkish forces launched a surprise offensive to clear both Islamic State and Syrian Kurdish forces from the Syria-Turkey frontier.
On Thursday, the Turkish-backed rebel units were driving from Jarablus toward Manbij, 20 miles to the south. Manbij, which lies near a major east-west highway, is currently under the control of antigovernment rebels operating under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The YPG’s estimated 30,000 fighters make up the bulk of that coalition.
In embarking on a major military intervention into Syria, Ankara warned the YPG to withdraw from the zone in northern Syria straddling the Turkish border, or face an all-out war with Turkey’s military.
During a visit last week to Turkey, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden echoed the call, warning the YPG they would lose U.S. support if they failed to pull out.
In an unusual public rebuke, Mr. Biden said Kurdish forces had taken more territory in northern Syria than had been agreed after the offensive to dislodge Islamic State from Manbij.
While declaring Thursday that the YPG had complied with the withdrawal requests from Ankara and Washington, Mr. Muslim insisted Thursday that the YPG was entitled to intervene across Syria.
The YPG are “Syrian forces,” he said. “They have a right to go to Damascus, they have a right to go everywhere. They are Syrians. And they formed to defend not only the Kurdish people.”
During his visit to Brussels, Mr. Muslim also pushed for European and U.S. recognition of an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria, one mirroring the Kurdish regional administration in neighboring Iraq.
The EU and the U.S. don’t support the proposal, saying they want Syria to remain unified. Turkey has said it supports Syria’s territorial integrity and won’t allow Kurdish self-rule in north of the country.
Turkish leaders say the YPG is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a war for autonomy in southeast Turkey for three decades. The PKK is classified as a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and the U.S., but to the dismay of Turkish leaders, Ankara’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies treat the YPG as a separate entity.
Turkey’s largest military foray into Syria in its five-year-old conflict is part of a renewed effort by Ankara to establish a de facto safe-zone along the border to help insurgents fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad and to provide a haven for Syrian civilians uprooted from their homes.
Among Syrian Kurds, suspicion of Ankara’s actions and motives runs high.
Denouncing Turkey’s intervention in Syria as an “invasion,” Mr. Muslim accused it Thursday of focusing its firepower in Syria on Kurdish forces instead of Islamic State. He also said Turkey was covertly backing the extremist group in Syria—an allegation President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government have repeatedly denied.
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