Syria’s Manbij stable despite occasional Turkish shelling: spokesperson

"The security situation so far is under control, and life continues here."

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Although American forces withdrew from the northern Syrian city of Manbij in October 2019, local officials say the city has been relatively stable since a deal in the same month paved the way for the arrival of Russian and Syrian government forces in Manbij.

The Manbij Military Council (MMC), linked to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), liberated Manbij with US support in 2016 in one of the bloodiest campaigns Syria has witnessed against the so-called Islamic State.

However, US forces left the town and other border regions in northern Syria in October 2019 after Turkey targeted the SDF-held towns of Tal Abyad and Serekaniye (Ras al-Ain).

In a deal Moscow brokered, the SDF invited Syrian forces to prevent a Turkish expansion. But there was no political deal on the future of the SDF-held northeast. As a result, there are now Syrian troops based on the outskirts of Manbij.

Manbij Military Council (MMC) Spokesperson Shervan Derwish, Dec. 9, 2019. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Wladimir van Wilgenburg)
Manbij Military Council (MMC) Spokesperson Shervan Derwish, Dec. 9, 2019. (Photo: Kurdistan 24/Wladimir van Wilgenburg)

Shervan Derwish, a spokesperson for the MMC, told Kurdistan 24 in a December interview that Syrian forces are positioned north of Manbij and there are “coordination centers” set up with both Russian and Syrian government troops.

Derwish noted that the Autonomous Administration of Manbij Civilian Council “is in charge of affairs in the region.”

“The Internal Security Forces are in charge of security in the city,” he added. “And the Manbij Military Council continues its military missions to protect Manbij as a whole.”

The Russians entered a former US base near Arima in October, which has allowed for “the same level of coordination” that the SDF/MMC enjoyed with the American forces, but now with the Russians, the spokesperson explained.

“Our joint efforts [with the Russians] have been positive,” but people are afraid of another war, Derwish noted. “The city has been impacted in this sense. However, the security situation so far is under control, and life continues here,” he reassured.  

Although Syrian forces arrived in the area, Turkish-backed groups in regions Turkey occupies in Al-Bab and Jarabulus often shell positions of the Manbij armed forces.

On Sunday, one civilian was killed and another injured after Turkish-backed groups shelled the countryside of Manbij, local media reported. Four Syrian government soldiers were also injured, it added.

The new shelling is a result of increased fighting in northwestern Syria’s Idlib between the Syrian government and rebel forces.

As a result, the local administration has helped around 200 families arrive in Manbij from Idlib in February.

Another good sign is the decrease in the Islamic State’s threat in the city. However, it was not long ago that Manbij experienced a spike of insurgency-style attacks before the US withdrawal. On Jan. 16, 2019, a bombing at a popular Manbij restaurant killed 19 people, including four Americans.

“There have been no bombings since, but our mission to pursue ISIS sleeper cells continues,” Derwish told Kurdistan 24, noting that some sleeper cells have been recently captured.

The US Military’s Central Command (CENTCOM) itself assessed that the Islamic State keeps a small, clandestine presence in Manbij, which “enables it to carry out small-scale but potentially high-impact operations,” according to a report from the US Defense Department’s inspector general released in February.

However, CENTCOM said that the Islamic State did not appear to have increased the number of operatives since the Americans withdrew from Manbij.

According to Derwish, some Islamic State fighters and women accused of membership in the terror group were arrested in an attempt to reloacate from northeastern Syria to areas Turkey controls. But there were no major bomb attacks.

“Among the escapees were some foreign ISIS fighters and women, including Germans,” he informed.

The spokesperson warned that security in Manbij could suffer if a deal is not reached to recognize the Kurdish-led SDF’s autonomous status as well as that of the autonomous self-administration in northeast Syria.

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“If the Turkish state attacks Manbij, there will be a huge exodus and displacement. And if the Syrian government takes control, many will be displaced,” Derwish said.

“The Turkish side is after [the] prosecution of some citizens in Manbij,” while the Syrian government, in its attempts to control Manbij, is starting “to recruit young people for conscription,” he added.

“Therefore, there is an urgent need for an agreement” with Damascus. “Without an agreement, there will be a disastrous situation” in the future.

Editing by Karzan Sulaivany