HALAWANJI, Syria – On a green hill, Kurdish and Arab fighters face a tense frontline to Turkish-backed forces in this part of northern Syria. Behind them, American troops drive up and down the streets. Their goal: Make known their presence, to prevent bursts of fire in a battle.
On the mountain and across a stream are the rival forces: Syrian fighters of the opposition. They have taken positions at an intersection in the village of Halawanji and on rooftops overlooking the hill. Beyond, on another hill, Turkish troops have a base ready to assist their allies when needed.
This front line threatens to inflame at any time, with the military of two NATO members on opposite sides. The overcrowded terrain has become more flammable as Turkey threatens to break through these lines to attack the nearby Kurdish-Arab city of Manbij and other Kurdish-led cities further east. The presence of Americans represents a major obstacle.
Further tensions, a street bomb in Manbij on late Thursday killed two coalition forces, one American and one British. Kurdish officials accuse Turkey and its allies of perpetrating acts of violence in the city to sow instability, including some recent minor bombings, protests and assassination attempts on a Kurdish official ̵
Manbij is very strategic: The capital on the extreme western edge of the Syrian territory, which is occupied by the US supported Syrian Kurds along the border with Turkey. Mixed Kurdish-Arab-Syrian forces liberated Manbij in 2016 from the reign of the Islamic State Group with the help of the US-led coalition. But Kurdish control of the city angered Turkey, which considers the US's main Kurdish allies, the YPG militias, as "terrorists" tied to Kurdish insurgents on their own soil.
U.S. Troops deployed to the area for the first time about 16 months ago, after Syrian troops supported by Turkey had advanced in areas near Manbij, collapsed as IS militants in a race for control of territories. The operation prevented repeated clashes between the two rival armed forces.
The US-backed Syrian fighters in Halwanji say their rivals, backed by Turkey, have thrown more and more fires at them to provoke a fight and create a pretext for an invasion. A commander said it happens three times a week. Another said the "provocations" had increased after Turkish troops and their allies successfully conquered another city further west, Afrin, from the YPG. The commanders say that their forces do not respond to the fire.
On Thursday, a commander, Abu Ali Nejm, said US troops had "noticeably increased their presence in recent days to prevent an outbreak of violence following the capture of Afrin, the threat posed by Turkey and the recent increase in Turkish troops and their allies.
"They have become part of the front to calm the people of Manbij and the armed forces and increase morale". said Abu Ali, who uses his nom de guerre and is a leading member of the Manbij Military Council, the joint Kurdish-Arab body that leads the US allied forces here.
US Colonel Ryan Dillon of the US-led coalition said there were no new US bases in the area. "Our patrols are moving, they are not static," he said. "The purpose of our forces is to prevent the reappearance of (IS militants) and to prevent any kind of invasion by any other group in the area.
Turkey and the United States have held talks to defuse the stalemate with a round set for Friday in Washington, but one solution remains unclear: Turkey claims that YPG power in northern Syria is a threat, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to push back the Kurdish fighters from Manbij to the Iraqi border On Friday, Erdogan angrily beat French President Emmanuel Macron for having met with Kurdish officials and offered to mediate, Erdogan said would not negotiate with "terrorists" and said harshly that Macron was "above his head".
In the meantime, Abu Ali said in Halwanji that the Turkish-backed fighters fired on his troops with heavy machine guns and handguns on Thursday did not respond to orders and instead reported the incident to US troops nearby.  "We inform, and they come to the front and see for themselves. They have their own contacts or their coordination with the Turkish armed forces, something they have nothing to tell us about," he said, adding that if the rival side sees the Americans, they will not fire.
A team of Associated Press reporters came to the incident shortly after the operation. A convoy of U.S. Troops were seen on the street. Everything was calm and all sides returned to their positions. But as the AP team drove away, new shots sounded in the distance.