ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – On Monday the first photographs emerged showing French troops patrolling the Sajur line that separates Turkish-backed groups and local forces supported by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the Manbij area amid nearby Turkish military movements.
“The French troops never patrol that line. They patrol inside Manbij and parts of Manbij where SDF held areas. Not on borderline between us and the Turks,” one security force member told Kurdistan 24 on condition of anonymity.
“This is the first time. I know a few French military troops visited US troops on the farthest frontlines, but they returned after a few hours. Their bases are inside Manbij. This is the first time they are on patrols inside armored vehicles,” the source added.
The so-called Sajur demarcation line separates Turkish-backed Euphrates Shield Forces and the SDF-backed Manbij Military Council (MMC). The French move could potentially hinder recently-threatened Turkish attacks on areas east of the Euphrates.
In June, Turkey and the US agreed on a Manbij roadmap, which included US-Turkish forces patrolling the demarcation line. Turkish and US troops began joint patrols on Nov. 1.
France, though, is not part of this agreement.
In a surprise statement on Wednesday, the White House announced it was withdrawing US forces from Syria east of the Euphrates. America has approximately 2,000 troops in the country where they have been backing the SDF in the fight against the Islamic State (IS).
Two top political co-leaders of the Syrian Democratic Council Riad Darar, an Arab from Deir al-Zor, and Ilham Ahmed, a Kurd, met on Friday with advisors to French President Emmanuel Macron.
During their visit, the SDC leaders called on France to impose a no-fly zone in the area to prevent a new Turkish invasion east of the Euphrates similar to their attack on Afrin, now under Turkish control. It is unclear whether or not the SDC and France came to an official agreement on the matter.
On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed regret over president Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Syria.
“An ally should be dependable. I very deeply regret the decision made on Syria,” he said.
According to Reuters, France has roughly 1,100 troops operating Iraq and Syria who provide logistics, training, and heavy artillery support as well as fighter jets for striking IS targets. Its presence in Syria also includes dozens of special forces, military advisers, and some foreign office personnel.
According to the SDF, France has one base in Manbij and one in Deir al-Zor governorate.
Syrian Kurds, however, say that the French presence cannot prevent a Turkish attack.
"Russia and the Syrian regime can prevent it. No European force can do that. Americans can do that, but they are not doing it," the anonymous military source said.
"Maybe they can postpone a Turkish attack. But they cannot ensure that Turkey will never attack Rojava, northern Syria, or any part of Syria.”
According to a senior lecturer on International Relations at Sussex, Kamran Metin, France in the short run can support forces already in Rojava to perform the same function of deterrence that US forces have.
“Though this requires larger military back-up for which other anti-ISIS coalition member states need to be involved,” he said, adding, “The problem is that France is Syria's old colonial power and a more prominent presence and action will be seen with high suspicion by the Syrian regime.”
“The key is France's ability to also engage Russia whose approval is absolutely central to any potential operation by Turkey. Without Russian approval, Turkey won't invade Rojava.”
Nicholas A. Heras, a Middle East security analyst at the Center for a New American Security, told Kurdistan 24, “France and the UK require US support, particularly intelligence and logistical support, to maintain their force presence in Syria.”
“This support does not require a large US presence in Syria, but it does require a US commitment to stay engaged, even if from Iraq, in the stabilization mission after ISIS in Syria.”
Editing by John J. Catherine