AL-UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar — Turkish and American troops could begin conducting joint patrols in a matter of days around the northern Syrian city of Manbij within the coming days, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East said Sunday.
Army Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters traveling with him that the soldiers' training is expected to last "several more days," and then will transition to combined patrols.
The Manbij patrols are part of a road map that Ankara and Washington agreed on in June to defuse tensions amid Turkish demands for the withdrawal of a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia that freed the town of Manbij from the Islamic State group in 2016.
The U.S. has now begun training Turkish troops, marking the final step before the two countries begin conducting joint patrols likely later this month around the strategic northern Syrian city of Manbij, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Monday.
The U.S. and the Turks have been conducting independent patrols along the border, and joint patrols are considered a way to tamp down potential violence between the various groups there.
"We're right on track with where we want to be," Votel said. "We've been through a very deliberate and mutually agreed upon training program."
He said the platoons will include security personnel. He did not provide details on the size of the units or how many U.S. and Turkish forces will be involved in the program. U.S. platoons can often include a couple dozen soldiers.
The initial instruction of Turkey's military trainers began at the beginning of the month, then all the troops were brought together for training to ensure they can all communicate, work together and operate with the same military tactics and procedures, particularly if there is an attack or other incident.
The training had been delayed a bit while equipment was brought in and the two countries worked out the details of how the operations would be conducted.
Manbij has been a major sticking point in the strained relations between the U.S. and Turkey. Ankara considers the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia, the People's Protection Units, or YPG, a terror group that is linked to a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.
Turkey’s president in remarks published Friday accused the United States of failing to abide by a deal for a U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia to withdraw from a town it had liberated from Islamic State militants in northern Syria.
The patrols will add to the security of the are, Votel said, adding that right now Manbij is stable and "we want to double down and consolidate our gains."
In July, the Manbij Military Council, which administers the town, said the YPG units once stationed there had completed their withdrawal. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry called reports of the alleged withdrawal “exaggerated” and said they didn’t “reflect the truth.”