What’s behind the Manbij offensive in Syria?

The US made its choice to back PYD a while ago as the main support against ISIS. It thinks groups in the northern countryside will join the SDF sooner or later, but the American plan will not work.

July 4, 2016 20:04
Smoke rises during fighting in the village of Ahmadiyah in Syria

Smoke rises during fighting in the village of Ahmadiyah in Syria, as seen from the Israeli side of the border fence between Syria and the Golan Heights [File]. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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All of a sudden the US has decided to change the direction of the operation against Islamic State through support for an offensive from the northern countryside of Raqqa towards Manbij in the eastern countryside of Aleppo. Kurdish YPG units, backed by their political party the PYD, and some other Arab units allied with the Kurds under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces were already nearby at the Tishreen Dam on the Euphrates River, not far from Manbij. They took the dam in December 2015 and stopped there for months, awaiting orders from the US to proceed. A month ago, according to my sources, American instructions came ordering the drive of the SDF and PYD toward the northern countryside of Raqqa, the capital of ISIS in Syria. Some fighting took place in that region with no notable progress.

Turkey does not want the PYD to move across the Euphrates, but despite warnings, Turkey seemed relaxed by the new developments.

It is thought that pressure on the US not to support a PYD push west of the Euphrates paid off. However, Turkey has found that the attack toward Raqqa’s countryside was just a trick, as the SDF forces around the Tishreen Dam began an offensive toward Manbij, seizing tens of villages and besieging them on all four sides.

It has taken 25 days for these forces to push Islamic State back and into the city. Some of the attacking forces entered the western neighborhoods of Manbij, but the story is not over yet and it seems the city may not fall soon. ISIS is using its classic method of truck bombs and mines, combined with the stubbornness of its fighters, which have been the main factors in its ability to survive despite being shelled and hammered by the coalition in Syria and Iraq.

America declared that the forces attacking Manbij consist of Arab fighters, but the fact on the ground is totally different. Most of the fighters are from the PYD; Arabs are a minority of the forces. This is a sensitive issue because the areas around Manbij are Arab communities and Turkey is very suspicious of Kurdish intentions, since the Kurdish state is at war with the Kurdish PKK in Turkey.

The change in direction of the offensive toward Manbij coincides with an offensive launched by the Syrian regime forces in the western countryside of Raqqa. The regime attacks are supported by Russian air strikes and have made notable progress. They briefly entered the Tabaqa airport, but a counterattack from ISIS was enough to drive them back to where they began. Russia is disappointed and even feels shame that it could not make its weak Syrian ally progress against ISIS. Some unverified reports say that there was an agreement between Russia and the US in regard to these two operations.

The progress of SDF, as reported by some NATO members such as France that have contributed small special forces to aid the PYD, has made Russia feel disappointment and fear at the growing NATO influence in Syria. It is a clear threat to Russian interests in the country, which was a traditional Soviet ally and sphere of influence.

The dark side of this story is that there are more than 200,000 civilians in Manbij city and no one cares about them. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented that coalition air strikes killed 38 civilians and that the PYD killed 24 civilians in Manbij fighting. We did not hear any condemnation for that from the world or human rights organizations.

Turkey is also disappointed by the American push for PYD forces west of the Euphrates. The Turkish fear is that PYD will proceed in the region and link up with allied units in the Aleppo northern countryside. Turkey views this as having an enemy entity extend along the entire Syrian- Turkish border, which will motivate separatist Kurdish intentions in southeast Turkey to try to establish their own entity. This is all tied into the breakdown of the peace process last year that the Turkish government had invested in and which has not resulted in a renewal of the 30-year-old war between the Turks and Kurdish groups.

Turkish officials reluctantly declared they had a promise from the US not to allow PYD fighters to cross the Euphrates, but that was only for domestic public opinion.

Turkey knew the PYD was leading the battle for Manbij and that the SDF is just a name used by the US to save Turkey from embarrassment.

The Turkish dilemma grew as the groups affiliated to Turkey have been scattered and suffered defeats on the battlefield against the Syrian regime. The Free Syrian Army in the northern countryside of Aleppo has retreated in the past month and regime forces are advancing. PYD and Islamic State are also pushing forward. This leaves only a tiny narrow area around the town of Azaz and Mari and some villages near the Turkish border controlled by Syrian rebels. It is under a constant threat of ISIS. PYD forces from the West in Afrin and regime forces supported by Shia militias, such as Hezbollah, are in the south, squeezing this area.

In the beginning the US stipulated that Islamist groups such as Ahrar a-Sham and Al-Nusra Front, which are stronger and more organized than other Syrian rebel groups, should withdraw as a precondition for the US supporting the opposition against ISIS. Those groups did withdraw after external and internal pressure. The US trained and equipped a few opposition fighters through a program that “included vetted fighters” (this program was recently canceled by the Americans).

However, the promise to support the rebels against ISIS has been shown to be a lie. The opposition commanders often say that the coalition air strikes on ISIS in their area are nominal. One commander said recently that coalition jets appear after areas are taken from ISIS, as if to show “Look, I am here helping you.” This is the sentiment among rebels who say that if they received just half the support of the PYD they could have gotten rid of ISIS in the area around Aleppo a long time ago.

The US made its choice to back PYD a while ago as the main support against ISIS. It thinks groups in the northern countryside will join the SDF sooner or later, but the American plan will not work.

The PYD is hated by the region’s mostly Arab population because of its totalitarian mentality and violations committed against civilians in regions it controls.

The author is a Syrian journalist

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