Military conscription suspended after protests and riots in Syria’s Manbij

A Manbij Military Council member provides security outside local businesses during Eid al-Adha in Manbij, Syria, August 21, 2018. (Photo: Sgt. Nicole Paese/US Army)
A Manbij Military Council member provides security outside local businesses during Eid al-Adha in Manbij, Syria, August 21, 2018. (Photo: Sgt. Nicole Paese/US Army)

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – As a result of talks between military leaders, the local civil council, and tribal leaders, the Manbij Military Council decided to halt military conscription in the town after violent protests erupted in the Syrian city three days ago.

Demonstrations erupted in the Arab-majority city of Manbij over the draft and growing frustration over worsening economic conditions in northeastern Syria in Manbij on Monday.

Since November 2014, local authorities in northern Syria have enforced military conscription on military-aged men of all ethnicities, a decision unpopular among local Kurds and Arabs alike.

However, every local canton or regional council administration in northeastern Syria has had the right to decide its own enlistment age.

“The forcible recruitment policy is deeply unpopular across SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] areas and has led many young men, Kurds and Arabs, to flee abroad,” Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow with the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, said in a tweet on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, after a meeting between the MMC, tribal leaders and the Manbij Civil Council, the local authorities decided to release all detainees that were arrested during the protests, investigate the circumstances that led to security forces firing on demonstrators, and hold accountable the people responsible.

Reuters reported that at least eight civilians were killed during the recent protests. According to the local North Press news agency four people in al-Hudhuh village near Manbij were killed. The news agency blamed pro-Syrian forces for the deaths, but social media accounts largely blamed the local internal security forces (Asayish).

Following the demonstrations, the Asayish in Manbij imposed a curfew in the area for 48 hours.

The SDF-linked Manbij Military Council ousted ISIS from the area with US support in 2016, in one of the bloodiest campaigns against the group in Syria.

The MMC in a statement this week blamed the unrest on “criminal cells” receiving instructions from external parties to attack the local security and military headquarters. 

It claimed external parties were “trying to exploit the economic conditions and difficulties experienced by Syrians in all regions and Manbij,” but that the council was open to discussions with the local population where they could “present their demands and criticisms.”

The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) also blamed external parties for exploiting, pointing the finger at “Syrian regime and its sleeper cells, Turkey and its mercenaries, and ISIS sleeper cells.”

“That’s the SDF’s main fear. Both the regime and Turkey are already working tirelessly to undermine the SDF role,” Mohammad Ibrahim, a local researcher focused on northeast Syria, told Kurdistan 24.

“I believe everyone including the SDF recognizes locals have to take on their own affairs. But the question when it comes to the widely divided Sunni Arab communities is by which means how and through whom? That’s the key question.”

“Currently there are no trustable options for SDF and if there are ostensibly any, they’re under Turkey or Syrian government influence.”

Economic Pressure

Nicholas Heras, a Senior Analyst at the Newlines Institute, told Kurdistan 24 that “the situation in Manbij is a showcase for the struggles that the Autonomous Administration can expect to have with the local population if the economy in northeast Syria continues to deteriorate.”

“Underlying social and political issues that are rampant in several of the former ISIS areas administered by the Autonomous Administration are exacerbated by a bad economy,” he added.

Charles Lister, an analyst at the Middle East Institute, claimed on Wednesday in a tweet that the civilian administration in northeast Syria “has 300,000 people on the payroll,” including military forces, “and revenue is shrinking, fast.”

The UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs has recently underscored the economic concerns across Syria. Speaking to UN member states on April 29, Mark Lowcock said the value of the Syrian pound “remains at over 3,000 to the dollar and food prices, partly as a consequence, remain at historically high levels.”

More than 40 percent of households report not having proper nutrition, he added.

Last month the authorities in northeast Syria made economic concessions to protesters, overturning a planned increase in the prices of automobile fuel, heating oil, and cooking gas.

The UN official Lowcock said the widespread protests against the price jumps were met “with excessive force, leading to the deaths of at least five civilians, including a child.”

Editing by Joanne Stocker-Kelly