War-weary Syrians in Manbij wait to learn fate


Syrians walk in a popular market in Manbij, northern Syria (31 December 2018)Image copyright

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Residents praised the Kurdish-led administration for bringing stability to the town

“Each time this town gets back on its feet a new faction turns it into rubble,” says Ali, a 35-year-old agricultural engineer. “We are tired of war.”

In Manbij, in northern Syria, war-weariness seems to prevail over politics.

Most residents long for stability after witnessing various groups wage fierce battles for control of the town since the start of Syrian civil war.

In 2012, rebel groups drove out security forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

Two years later, the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) seized control.

And in 2016, the town was captured by a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Now, Manbij finds itself in the crosshairs once again.

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Manbij has been the scene of several battles in the past six years

The Turkish government has long threatened to launch an assault to force the Kurdish militia that dominates the SDF – the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – to withdraw from the predominantly Arab town and move east of the River Euphrates.

Ankara considers the YPG an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for three decades, and sees the militia’s presence along its southern border as a security threat.

The Turkish military was dissuaded from attacking Manbij, which is about 30km (20 miles) from the border, by the presence of troops from a US-led multinational coalition, which has relied on the SDF to battle IS militants on the ground in northern and eastern Syria.

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US forces are still reported to be patrolling Manbij

But the situation changed on 19 December, when US President Donald Trump declared victory over IS and announced that US military personnel would begin withdrawing from Syria immediately.

The decision came as a surprise to the SDF, who warned that a US pull-out would allow IS to “revive itself again” and “create a political and military vacuum in the area, leaving its people between the claws of hostile parties”.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he was not in a hurry to carry out an operation in Manbij, but activists reported that reinforcements had been sent to the border and a nearby Syrian area controlled by Turkish-backed rebel factions.

Fearing an attack, the SDF called on the Syrian government to step in.

On 28 December, the Syrian army said its troops had entered the town. But the reality turned out to be different, with troops and allied militiamen remaining stationed to the south.

On Wednesday, the state news agency Sana reported that almost 400 Kurdish fighters had withdrawn from Manbij in line with an agreement, but residents told the BBC that the Kurdish-led administration was still firmly in control.

“If the regime enters Manbij it will do it through armed tribal militias. Big tribes such as al-Boubana are supportive of the regime,” says Ali, the engineer.

Ali, who is an Arab, says the current administration has “brought us stability”, but he believes negotiations are “the best option” for the town.

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It is unclear what has been agreed by Kurdish leaders and the Syrian government

There are some residents, though, who would prefer to see Turkish-backed rebels take control.

They include Arabs who have accused Kurdish fighters and officials of discrimination and human rights abuses over the past two years.

People who have opposed President Assad’s rule or dodged conscription to the Syrian army over the past seven years could also face being prosecuted or drafted under government rule.

However, the actions of rebel factions when they controlled Manbij between 2012 and 2014 have left other people wary of their return.

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The civil war has devastated Syria and left millions living in extreme poverty

“Some support the regime as they are more worried about the opposition. Others are driven by their personal interests or political beliefs,” says one Kurdish resident.

“Most people just want the end of the war.”

All residents are now waiting anxiously for outside powers to decide the town’s fate.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton is due to arrive in Ankara on Monday to discuss Syria with Turkish officials, while President Trump has reportedly agreed to give the US military four months to withdraw the 2,000 troops in Syria, rather than the 30 days he initially decreed.

“As long as the [US-led] coalition troops are there, neither Syria nor Turkey will intervene,” says another local Arab, who used to work as a journalist.

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