Until the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011, Manbij was a forgotten and neglected city, famed more for its ancient past rather than any modern achievements.
During colonial times, the city’s residents took up arms against French colonial rule. Manbij dwellers later took great pride in knowing that one of the greatest Arab poets of modern times, Omar Abu Risheh, was one of its celebrated sons.
For the past six years, though, Manbij has risen to international fame as militarily and politically contested by the Turks, Iran, Russia, the United States, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and, of course, Damascus.
Located 30 kilometers west of the Euphrates River, it is part of the Aleppo Governorate, presently controlled by US and Kurdish forces.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson agreed during a two-day visit to Turkey beginning on Thursday to finally allow Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army troops into Manbij, where they will be deployed side-by-side with American forces.
The anti-ISIS Kurdish militias that have run Manbij since 2016, including the Syrian Kurdish YPG, a group Turkey considers a terror organization with links to the insurgent Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), will be asked to leave and dispatch east of the Euphrates River.
This is music to the ears of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is known to have sought a military presence in Manbij for the past two years.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members parliament in Ankara, February 13, 2018. Photo: Presidential Palace Handout via Reuters/Yasin Bulbul
He has publicly claimed that the Kurds have no historic right to Manbij, which before the war was inhabited by an assortment of Arabs, Circassians and Kurds.
Erdogan had pleaded with former US President Barack Obama to allow him to liberate Manbij from ISIS rule after the terror group’s fighters stormed and occupied the city in January 2014.
Obama refused, however, handing the task instead to the US-backed Kurdish army, also known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which until now has administered Mabjib through its City Council. The YPG is seen as the SDF’s main ground element in Syria.
Erdogan had hoped to include Manbij in his neatly carved out buffer zone in the Syrian north, which included the border cities of Jarablus and Azaz, and the inland town of al-Bab, located 4o kilometers northeast of Aleppo.
That military-led project aimed to push both ISIS and Kurdish separatists from Turkey’s border with Syria and create a safe zone where Erdogan could resettle millions of Syrian refugees who have resided in Turkey since 2011.
In February 2017, a Turkish government spokesman said that its operations would stop at al-Bab, with no plans to advance on Manbij or al-Raqqa, previously ISIS’ de-facto capital.
However, Erdogan almost immediately countered that official statement, saying: “There might be a miscommunication. There is no such thing as stopping when al-Bab is secured. After that, there are Manbij and al-Raqqa.”
To his later dismay, both cities were liberated from ISIS rule instead by the Kurdish SDF. Now, in exchange for allowing Erdogan to gain a foothold in Manbij, the US hopes he will halt his offensive on the Kurdish city of Afrin, situated west of the Euphrates River, which his troops have been shelling since January 20, 2018.
Erdogan launched an offensive on Afrin amid concerns it was earmarked as one of three Kurdish cantons of a proposed “federal government of northern Syria.” The YPG are known to be active in the town.
That’s anathema to Ankara, which has long fought against PKK insurgents in its eastern reaches. A continued Kurdish presence in Afrin would enable the Kurds to link their three districts administratively and politically, although not geographically.
Nearly one month later, however, Turkish troops have failed to penetrate Kurdish defenses around the contested city of Afrin, threatening a protracted battle that could further inflame the region and perhaps lead to reprisal attacks within Turkey.
At least 28 combatants have already been killed on the Turkish side (11 in one day), while Kurdish militias have managed to strike deep into Turkish territory, destroying a 17th century Ottoman mosque in one assault.
A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands guard near the village of Bir Fawaz, 20 kilometers north of Raqqa, February 8, 2017. Photo: AFP/Delil Souleiman
Kurdish groups and rights activists have accused Erdogan of using prohibited chemical weapons in the battle, claims his government has denied. The US has also said it doubts chemical weapons were used in the battle.
At the same time, Erdogan has arrested over 600 journalists, bloggers and anti-war protestors who dared to critically report on his Afrin Operation.
A video of Turkish backed troops stomping the corpse of a Kurdish female fighter has recently gone viral on social media, reaffirming to some Erdogan’s abusive take-no-prisoners approach on the battlefield.
Despite tough talk vowing to rout Kurdish fighters, it already seems clear that Erdogan seeks a face-saving way out of Afrin’s quagmire – though he cannot walk away without receiving something in return.
That “something” now appears to be control over Manbij. US President Donald Trump’s White House now seems keen to pacify Turkey, its long-time NATO ally which has accused Washington of providing heavy arms to the YPG. The US has denied arming the militia with heavy weaponry.
A Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighter looks through a pair of binoculars outside of Afrin, Syria, February 17, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Khalil Ashawi
Trump’s government still sees Turkish cooperation as vital to its regional interests, despite reservations about Erdogan’s massive crackdown against thousands of suspected opponents after a failed coup attempt in mid-2016.
A US-brokered handover of Manbij will no doubt please Erdogan while not overly perturbing the Kurds, who do not appear to have any long-term ambitions for the city.
In exchange for leaving Manbij, the Kurds will get to stay in al-Qamishly, al-Hassakeh and Afrin, although Afrin will reportedly be handed over to Syrian government troops by the end of this week, given its location in Russia’s sphere of battlefield influence.
This is what the Kurds had originally proposed, just hours before the Turkish offensive started. Damascus refused, allowing the offensive to happen. Now, Russia has secured approval of all sides concerned to have government troops return to Afrin, rather than allowing for Turkish control or Kurdish rule.
The Kurds would prefer to see Russian and Syrian forces in Afrin rather than Turkish troops, while Erdogan would settle for anything that prevents the Kurds from annexing Afrin into their own territorial project.