Surprise decision to pull U.S. troops from Syria produces unease for Manbij residents

Jan. 15, 2018 - Manbij, Syria - Manbij frontline and SDF forces on the lookout for FSA and Turkish drones.Manbij, Syria - As Turkish forces consolidate their hold on the Syrian border town of Afrin in an anti-Kurdish operation dubbed Euphrates Shield, US troops have been helping to block a similar advance at Manbij – 90 miles to the east.

But the Turkish advance into Afrin 20 miles south of the border – is draining Kurdish manpower, while residents nervous watch and wonder if Washington will continue to stand by their small autonomous city or force them to accept Ankara’s domination.

In fact, Manbij now is the testing ground of the Western commitment to the Kurdish forces, men – and women – who bore the brunt of the struggle to liberate the area from Islamic State – as Turkey is determined push an armed group it sees as radicalizing its own Kurdish minority away from its borders.

“People here want to talk about how to rebuild their lives,” said Samir Mohammed Noor, a Mabij imam, who passes much of his time advising couples on matters of marriage and divorce and helping local traders resolve business disputes.

“With the help of God, President Trump and US forces may stay to bring peace to Syria.”

Today, the only remaining sign of the 18-month Islamic State reign of terror in the city is the wrecked cemetery – where the jihadists smashed tombstones claiming that the elaborate historic monuments were signs of idolatry.

“ISIS even placed explosives inside mosques,” said Abdullah Fayad, a 45 year-old local resident. “They blew up this ancient one over here,” he added, pointing to a massive pile of rubble in the center of the cemetery.

But in spite of the peace that has mostly reigned since the militants fled, anxiety has risen since last week’s announcement by Turkey’s National Security Council – a body chaired by President Tayyip Erdogan – threatening to deploy further into Kurdish areas if their militia doesn't withdraw immediately from Manbij.

In a televised interview in February, President Erdogan said that Euphrates Shield forces would turn toward Manbij because it is “historically Arab” and should be “cleared of these terrorist organization elements,” referring to Kurdish forces in the city.

Manbij’s population is 80 percent Arab but the locals here prefer to align themselves with the Kurdish minority largely because they adamantly renounce Islamist armed groups – including Sunni jihadist organizations operating in the area and the multinational Islamic State.

Residents of Manbij became even more nervous last week after President Trump said the US would "be coming out of Syria like very soon," just hours after the Pentagon underscored the need for American troops to remain there for the immediate future.

On Friday, President Trump spoke to Erdogan by phone “to discuss regional developments and the strategic partnership between the United States and Turkey.”

In August 2016, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured Manbij from the Islamic State with the support of the US-led coalition.

That victory was never really celebrated in Ankara.

“Turkey is using Afrin as a form of brinkmanship to have the Kurdish forces evacuate Manbij,” said Hay Yanarocak, a Turkey analyst at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center, who believes the US and Turkey are likely to negotiate an arrangement where the town, or at least the area around it sees a Kurdish retreat.

“I can’t say that Turkey was happier when ISIS controlled the area – considering they (IS) launched rockets at Killis (22 miles northeast of Afrin) and attacked tourism spots in Istanbul," he added. "But they were pleased when the Kurdish forces were losing men to ISIS in the Syria fighting.”

On Thursday French President Emmanuel Macron that his country would bolster its force commitment in Syria causing Erdogan to warn that Paris could become a target of Ankara’s wrath.

Meanwhile, on the ground, the residents want the Kurds to stay because the Kurds are credited with defeating Islamic State and restoring a semblance of normalcy under the protection of US and French troops.

“There is fighting here but the frontline is stable,” said Mohammed Abu Adil, head of the Manbij Military Council, which guards the town and its surroundings. “Coalition forces are present and in fact, their numbers have increased since Turkey made its demands.”

“We’ve made it clear that we are staying and not going to withdraw from the city,” he added.

On Saturday the Defense Department released the name of a soldier who was killed in an IED attack near Manbij.

Master Sgt. Jonathan Dunbar, 36, of Austin, Texas, was deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. Another coalition service member who has not been publicly identified was killed and five others were wounded in the attack on the allied patrol on the Turkish- Syrian border.

The SDF forces in northeastern Syria are comprised of a mixed army of some 70,000 Kurdish and Arab fighters including up to 10,000 volunteer female fighters in Kurdish women’s protection units.

For the past eight months, these forces have faced off against their ostensible countrymen – Sunni Syrian fighters have dug into positions on the Turkish side of the border, 10 miles north of Manbij.

“Officially there’s (a ceasefire) agreement between the coalition and the Turks,” said Shiya Gerde, a front line commander in the SDF forces. “But the pro-Turkish Sunni militias do initiate clashes and are constantly probing our positions.”

Gerede estimates that a force of around 650 men from an array of Sunni Syrian groups including Ahrar al-Sham – a rebel group with links to Al Queda – are stationed on the other side of the border at the Manbij front lines.

These Sunni Syrian forces have lobbed 120mm artillery shells toward Manbij from the safety of a nearby Turkish army base, according to the commander.

“They are most active at night, shouting out ‘Allahu Akbar’ when shooting,” said Mohammed Sheh Abed, a 20 year-old Kurdish fighter from Manbij. “After Turkey launched Euphrates Shield, their behavior started to change.”

Using his binoculars, Abed spots the array of forces deployed against the Kurds in this corner of northeastern Syria.

“Some of the men facing us wear Free Syrian Army uniforms, others are in Kandahar robes,"said Abed referring to the Afghan-style garb often favored by jihadis closest to al Qaeda. “Another unit that’s affiliated to a tribal clan from Deir Ez Zor (170 miles south east) wears uniforms similar those we used to see on the men from the Islamic State.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.

You are here: Home Newsroom Middle East / North Africa Surprise decision to pull U.S. troops from Syria produces unease for Manbij residents