U.S. withdrawal could mean chaos for Kurdish-held Manbij

U.S. withdrawal could mean chaos for Kurdish-held Manbij – Ahval

After two and a half years of stable Kurdish control, Manbij residents fear the future as their city looks set to change hands again as U.S. forces withdraw from Syria, reported Abu Dhabi-based daily The National.

U.S. forces’ imminent departure has exposed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — Washington’s predominantly Kurdish partners in the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) — to attacks from Turkey and has raised questions over who will assume control of Kurdish-held parts of Syria following the U.S. withdrawal.
“Manbij, it appears, is at the heart of this conundrum with both the Syrian government and Ankara racing to reclaim a city which once served as a launching pad for U.S.-backed operations against ISIS,” said The National. “With the potential loss of U.S. protection, inhabitants fear an attack that could upend two years of relative stability.”

Life inside Manbij this week was nearly the same as it had been since the SDF and YPG drove ISIS from the area in the summer of 2016. The markets are crowded and store owners are going about their usual business.
A predominantly Arab city with a pre-war population of around 100,000, Manbij has changed hands many times throughout the course of the eight-year-long conflict. Syrian rebels ousted the government from the city in 2012, but would eventually lose ground to ISIS some two years later. In 2016, the SDF would defeat ISIS and establish the Manbij Military Command – a body comprised of both Arab and Kurds – to administer the area, with backing from the US-led coalition against ISIS.

More than two years later the city looks poised to change hands again as U.S. forces withdraw following President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement on Dec. 19.

Ankara has been threatening a military incursion into Manbij, to clear the area of YPG, which Turkey views as a terrorist group. U.S. officials have warned NATO ally Turkey against taking action that would endanger American lives.
But last week Ankara-backed rebels started amassing north of the city. Turkish soldiers were also seen gathering on their side of the border and in parts of Syria where they have deployments, according to The National.

Last Friday, the YPG invited the Syrian army “to assert control over the areas our forces have withdrawn from, in particularly Manbij, and to protect these areas against a Turkish invasion,” The National reported.

Locals face an uncertain future.“People are afraid,” Adam, a young man working in his father’s convenience shop, told The National. “[Afraid] of the [Turkey-backed] Free Syrian Army, but also of the regime.”
Caught between what they see as an impending foreign invasion from the north and west and the return of an unwelcome regime from the south, Kurdish leaders have a tough choice. “If the [Turkish-backed] rebels enter the city, half the city will flee,” Sharvan Derwish, the MMC spokesperson, told The National. “If the Syrian Army enters, a quarter will flee.”

On Friday, the Syrian army said that its troops had entered the city. But the U.S.-led coalition said it had seen no indication to support this. As of Monday, Syrian troops were nowhere to be found inside Manbij, reported The National.

Officials with the Syrian Democratic Council – the political wing of the SDF – said negotiations are ongoing with Damascus over what arrangement would govern their entrance and how that could protect the area from a Turkish attack.

They say no deal had been reached yet, but negotiations began with the baseline agreement that Ankara-backed rebels should not be allowed to enter the city.
Kurdish groups fear that the fate of Manbij will follow that of Afrin, located some 120 kilometres to the west.

Earlier this year, Turkey, with the support of rebels, launched operation Olive Branch, which resulted in the capture of Afrin from YPG forces.

The area is now controlled by a number of rebel groups who compete for power and influence over the town, which is struggling with lax security and consistent terrorist attacks, the most recent of which targeted a crowded market earlier this month.

In Manbij, a similar danger now looms. “They [Turkey-backed rebels] will kill all the Kurds in Manbij. Even us [Arabs], they will say we are infidels, anything,” says Abu Adel,
Many young men in Manbij say they fear conscription into the Syrian Army and many are still wanted for what the government describes as crimes against the state.

“My whole generation fled [military] conscription,” Hussein, 29, said. “Most young men in this city are wanted by the regime. If it comes back now, we will never get out of the army. At first they’ll be nice to the people, but after that, they’ll go back to their old ways.”

Fatima, a young Arab woman, struck a defiant chord.

“We know these Turkish-backed groups because we lived under them before,” she said. “Stealing, looting. Any girl they like, they take. It was chaos…We don’t want any foreign forces to enter here. We want this city and we want to fight for ourselves.”

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