The SDF takes Manbij but Life is Slow to Return

Local factions in Manbij, in cooperation with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of local forces dominated by Kurdish forces, succeeded on August 11 in ousting the Islamic State (ISIS) from the city after intense fighting that began on May 28 and forced the group to withdraw from the last areas it controlled in al-Sirb, Jarabulus road, and the downtown Security Quarter. ISIS had controlled Manbij and the surrounding areas since January 15, 2014.

The extremist group considered a battle for Manbij unlikely, as Turkey repeatedly opposed any advances by the SDF west of the Euphrates river. That reassured ISIS, which moved 70 percent of its forces and weapons from the countryside into Manbij to fortify the city, which allowed surrounding countryside quickly fall to the SDF as it attacked on two fronts, the Qara Qawzaq Bridge and the Tishrin Dam (on the Euphrates side of Manbij). After that the SDF crossed to the west bank of the Euphrates, despite Turkish warnings, seizing several villages with the support of coalition air strikes and coming within 18 km of Manbij after fierce fighting.

ISIS was then forced to change its strategy. It began luring SDF forces into large towns. It used locals as human shields and forced residents of areas captured by the SDF to flee into areas still held by its own forces. It then transported prisoners from Manbij to the front lines and forced them to dig trenches and tunnels. One of the most important tunnels led to its bunkers in central Manbij, allowing supplies to be delivered to an area ISIS considered strategically important.

On June 23, SDF forces advanced into the southern suburbs of Manbij, coming close to the public bakery. Days later they took over a group of buildings in the Tariqa neighborhood, reaching the cement factory. On August 5 they seized a devastated village on the eastern edge of Manbij. In Manbij city itself they took over the public bakery and a carpet factory to control 80 percent of Manbij. ISIS then withdrew from the entire city. Its departure gave residents a chance to return to their districts, where the fighting and ISIS’s plundering had destroyed damaged the infrastructure and people’s property. The most recent fighting left some 440 civilians dead, according to an Aleppo 24 tally, including 248 men, 123 children and 69 women. The international coalition was responsible for a large proportion of the victims: 199 were killed in coalition airstrikes. Coalition aircraft carried out several massacres of civilians, the largest being in al-Toukhar on July 19, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported at least 56 dead but the actual number might be as high as 133 dead including 70 children. Aleppo 24’s sources report other air strikes also killing civilians, such as in Aujaqtah, south of the city, where 23 people from the same family were killed, and a strike in al-Ghandura that left 30 dead.

Before withdrawing from Manbij, ISIS targeted the city’s suburbs with car bombs, as well as using snipers and mines against civilians, killing dozens. In the period of active fighting, ISIS killed 134 civilians, including those executed in public and those shot dead while attempting to flee the city. The extremist group also killed dozens of civilians who were trying to leave Manbij. Aleppo 24 documented about 100 people, including women and children, who were either shot dead as they fled or blown up by mines ISIS had planted around the city.

SDF forces also killed 53 civilians who were either shot or killed by random bombing of civilian areas inside the city. The SDF’s efforts to expel locals were no less serious than the other violations committed during the fighting. On August 1, SDF forces forced the residents of more than 10 villages east of Manbij to leave, on the basis that their area had become a military zone where there would soon be a battle to empty the area of ISIS cells. Residents were forced to flee on foot at dusk with whatever possessions and animals they could take. They crossed the road to al-Saideen, which is surrounded by mines, and reached an agricultural area where they slept in the open air close to Abu Qalqal with no shelter or food.

The battle for Manbij has left the city devastated in every way. Coalition strikes have destroyed its infrastructure, most importantly the main bridges in al-Sirb and on the Aleppo, Jarabulus and Bazaar roads. Coalition strikes also targeted vital areas including the National Hospital, the town’s mills, a Sharia school, a bakery, a post office, and several schools, as well as clinics, the covered market and the al-Sallalin market. On top of that, most residential buildings have been at least partially destroyed by ISIS, which deliberately set fire to them before withdrawing, in order to protect its fleeing fighters. The group booby-trapped all the buildings from which it withdrew, blowing them up later to impede the progress of the SDF.

Manbij was a strategically vital position for ISIS because it straddles the road between Al-Bab and Raqqa. ISIS assigned to the city and its surroundings its largest force, in terms of men and weaponry, and made it the capital of its Aleppo province. When it took over the city in 2014, it arrested about 3000 civilians, and executed dozens of others in the city center to instill fear in the civilians.

After the fighting, the Manbij local council, a local governing body elected by local residents which had been operating in exile since ISIS took over, made plans to return to the city. However, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) dissolved the council and established what it calls a constituent assembly to run city, and said that Manbij will be added to the Kurdish autonomous territories. Local residents accuse the PYD of trying to make the area more Kurdish, and that the SDF has not allowed residents to return to Manbij, citing security concerns. According to one local source, when residents wanted to return to villages outside of Manbij, the SDF said there are still mines in the ground, but then also refused to allow an organization that specializes in demining to clear the area.

Aleppo 24 is a Syrian news outlet founded in 2011 that reports on ongoing events in Aleppo province.

Image: Image: Map of Manbij