With US troop pullout, Manbij residents brace for upheaval

Reuters/Manbij (Syria)
Filed on December 30, 2018 | Last updated on December 30, 2018 at 09.44 pm
With US troop pullout, Manbij residents brace for upheaval


US forces have underpinned stability in Manbij since Daesh's defeat here in 2016.

The city of Manbij has switched control more than most places in Syria's civil war.

With US troops set to leave after President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw them, residents fear others will rush to fill the vacuum, causing more upheaval: Syrian government forces have deployed nearby while Turkey is threatening its own assault on the city.

US forces have underpinned stability in Manbij since Daesh's defeat here in 2016.

Some 30km from the Turkish border, it occupies a critical spot in the map of the Syrian conflict, near the junction of three separate blocks of territory that form spheres of Russian, Turkish and - for now - US influence.

While US forces have yet to leave, the consequences of Trump's decision are already playing out in Manbij. Russian-backed Syrian government forces entered the outskirts on Friday for the first time in years at the invitation of Kurdish YPG militia who fear the US departure could open the way for a Turkish attack.

"We have been living in fear for the past few days and we don't know what is happening and who will enter the city," said Ismail Shaalan, 41, who has lived in Manbij since fleeing fighting in the Aleppo area two years ago.

"Is it the Turks or the Syrians?"

Trump has said the withdrawal will be slow. US-led coalition jets and attack helicopters could still be seen in the skies over Manbij on Saturday. Local fighters with the US-backed militia that has held the city since 2016, the Manbij Military Council, were conducting their normal patrols on Saturday wearing red berets and armed with AK-47 assault rifles.

"We survived the war. We will never see worse than Daesh," said Abu Hamze, 43, a father of five. But he too is worried: "We are scared. The situation is confusing."

Manbij has changed hands three times since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. Free Syrian Army rebels seized it from President Bashar Al Assad's government early in the conflict. Then it fell to Daesh which declared it part of its "caliphate".

Daesh was dislodged from Manbij in 2016 by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia force spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG and backed by the US-led coalition.

Manbij has been held by SDF-allied forces since then, angering Turkey which views the influence wielded by the YPG in northern Syria as a national security threat.

Turkish and US forces have been conducting joint patrols near Manbij since November, agreed as part of US efforts to satisfy Turkish concerns. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday Turkey would have nothing left to do in Manbij once the "terrorists" leave, a reference to the YPG, which says its forces have already withdrawn from the city.

Turkey says the YPG is indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged a 34-year insurgency in Turkey. It has vowed to crush the YPG with help from Syrian rebel allies, some of whom come from places now held by the SDF and are fiercely hostile to the Kurdish fighters.

Turkey-backed rebels have been mobilising for an attack on Manbij in nearby areas that have been under Turkey's control since it swept into northern Syria in 2016, part of its effort to roll back the YPG. Erdogan signalled on Friday that Turkey was not in a hurry to carry out the operation.

The YPG, taken aback by Trump's decision, called on Damascus on Friday to protect Manbij. Shortly afterwards, the Syrian army said it had deployed to Manbij where it would guarantee security "for all Syrian citizens and others present".

The Syrian troops did not enter the city but nearby frontlines with the hostile Turkey-backed rebels.

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