Manbij City from Al-Assad to SDF, then what?

This study tackles the reality of the Syrian city of Manbij through several axes:

  • A preface about the conflict of local and international forces today over Manbij.
  • Manbij the location, geography and ancient history.
  • The writer’s journey from Manbij to the detention camp over fifteen years.
  • Manbij in the Syrian revolution.
  • The role of Islamic battalions in Manbij.
  • ISIL takeover of Manbij.
  • The Syrian Democratic Forces expel ISIL from Manbij and control it.
  • The return of the regional and local conflict over Manbij.
  • The Turkish role in returning Manbij from the Syrian Democratic Forces.


The city of (Manbij) almost summarizes, on its land as in its space, the general picture of the regional and international conflict over the Syrian land. As all the dominant parties in the conflict over Syria exist there (USA, Russia, Turkey, Al-Assad regime and the Democratic Syrian Forces). So what makes this sleeping metropolis on the west bank of the Euphrates River a hotbed of the mightiest armies of super-powers? What is certain is that the cultural heritage of this city as well as its historical rootedness has distinguished it with a peaceful character throughout the ages; therefore it might not seem adequate to be a theatre of death that lurks around all the beautiful things in it.

Manbij city is located in the Syrian north. It is 90 km to the north-east of Aleppo, 35 km from the Turkish borders, and 40 km to the west of the Euphrates River. Its organizational chart is (2000) ha, and its population is about (600000) according the last official census in 2004, however its population in the years 2013 – 2014 was estimated at (800000), the city has seen a sudden increase of population as a result of the constant incoming displacements.

For the Assyrians Manbij city was known as (Mapigi), and the Saami called it (Yanbij), then later it was known to the Greeks as (Herapolis). The Muslims entered it in 16 AH under the leadership of Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah, and Harun al-Rashid made it the capital of al-Awasim[1] and he appointed Abdul Malek bin Saleh on it, who rebuilt it after being destroyed by earthquake in 784 A.D.

Manbij with its predominantly Arab population (80% of the Arab population) contains a diverse mixture of components (Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens and Circassians), however it didn’t witness throughout the ages any ethnic, sectarian or confessional conflicts rather it was an example for the peaceful coexistence among all its components.

Manbij city was known for its long standing literary heritage. Its Emir during the reign of al-Hamdaniyah was the poet (Abu Firas al-Hamadani), who was captured by the Romans by its borders and taken to Constantinople, where he wrote his most sentimental and melodious poetry. Also lived in it the poet (Abu Ubada al-Buhtori), who mentioned it repeatedly in his poems. In the modern era, the poet Omar Abu Reshah, Mohammad Munla Ghzeel, Abdullah Salameh, Youssef Abeid, the famous theatre director Fawaz Al-Sajer and a long list of others were all known in it.

I have left my city Manbij in the year 1986. It was a compulsory departure that lasted for fifteen years; I have spent them as a political detainee in the prisons of Hafez Al-Assad and his son Bashar after him. When I left the prison in 2001, I found a big change in its urban features as well as in its streets and structure. But the kindness of its people and their enlightenment tendency didn’t change; that tendency to love culture, literature, poetry and music. This encouraged me greatly to integrate in its cultural movement. However, to avoid the restrictions imposed by the security authorities and with the participation of a number of activists in cultural and political affairs, I took a rural house in a farm outside the city, and we made it –despite its simplicity- a cultural forum in which we read poetry, hear music and talk about politics, thought and culture.

In March 2011, with the emergence of the Syrian revolution, started the peaceful revolutionary uprising in the city through the demonstrations that were launched from public places. The regime security forces tried to suppress them brutally, and a number of the city’s residents were arrested. But as the demonstrations grew louder, the regime’s authorities could no longer control them. Large demonstrations became a usual ritual of the townspeople.

Manbij city was liberated from the authorities of al-Assad regime in 19.07.2012. The local council, which was formed in secret prior to the liberation of the city, took over the administration of the town and supervised the work of service institutions. In this context it should be emphasized that the civil administration of Manbij after its liberation was the most successful among the liberated cities. State institutions and public properties were preserved. The city has never witnessed cases of vandalism or looting. In addition, all government departments continued to offer their services to citizens with full staff. Perhaps what helped in that was the coordination between the local council and the Free Army factions, whose majority belonged to the city of Manbij itself. As a result, this city became a refuge for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees from Homs, Aleppo and Idleb.

In early March 2013, ISIL started to infiltrate the city through small groups trying to appear as pacifist who shows a great desire to come closer to the residents. They tried to convince the citizens that their only aim is the call for God and demonstrating the sound doctrine, and that they have no ambitions of power or money. These groups tried at the beginning of their arrival not to clash with any formation of the Free Army, claiming that they wouldn’t interfere in the civil and administrative or the service affairs of the city. But at the same time, in a semi-secret manner, they were attracting young people and organizing them under different names (the Muslim Youth Movement, the Free Syrian Students Union), and they provided them with some support in order to incite them to the Free Army and the local council taking advantage of some flaws here and there. To the point where some of these young people began to carry the black flags and go out in small demonstrations chanting slogans that denounced the democratic civil uprising and glorified (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) which was the name of Daesh then.

At the beginning of September 2013 the number of the Islamic groups in Manbij increased, and also their equipments and weapons. Their speech shifted from the pacifist advocate to the attacker who wanted to pounce on power. They started to bring some economic facilities in the city (mills – feed institution) under their control, and they also occupied the municipal palace and the cultural center, which was considered one of the most important monuments of civilization in Manbij. It became clear that these small groups, which have quickly gathered and formed a power, were seeking to swallow all other different forces. They had their own headquarters, prisons and courts. They arrested a number of the revolution youth who didn’t respond to their approach, in addition to their constant harassments of the Free Army factions, who were busy in the confrontations with Al-Assad forces in Aleppo, Al-Qusayr and Kuweires airport.

At the start, the Free Army had no desire to enter a war with ISIL organization for many reasons such as:

Firstly, the common belief that the real confrontation is with Al-Assad regime and the involvement in any other confrontation would strengthen the regime, in addition to the unwillingness to create new enemies of the revolution.

 Secondly, there was an obvious reluctance among some of the Free Army factions to confront ISIL organization because of the Islamic tendency of some of these factions, who didn’t have the deep awareness to distinguish faith and real religiosity from political Islam which derives power from religion for hegemony and domination. In addition, the Islamic-oriented factions like (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant “Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya”) firmly refused to fight against ISIL in Manbij, and they opted to retreat without standing by any side.

Thirdly, there was a fear of a social strife among the city residents because of this confrontation, due to the fact that a number of the city’s young people were involved with ISIL.

However, these reservations about fighting against ISIL have all completely disappeared before the latter’s insistence on swallowing all the revolution forces and eliminating its manifestations. As a result, the Free Army factions took a firm decision to eradicate this terrorist organization as an enemy of the revolution quite equal to Al-Assad regime.

At 2 am on 6.1.2014, the attack on ISIL started. It was expelled from the city and a number of its Emirs and advocates were arrested. Manbij became free of ISIL for 18 days only, then the organization returned to lay siege to the city from three directions. After this siege that lasted more than a week without any support from any other party for the revolutionists, besides bombing the city with mortar rounds that were fallen on the civilians, ISIL organization reoccupied the city on 23.01.2014. Its approach became more evident in the abuse and taking revenge from all activists, both civilians and military, and its tendency to eradicate any revolutionary practice against Al-Assad regime and ISIL became very clear. Nevertheless, the exit of the Free Army didn’t end the battle. Most of the Free Army factions have moved to the northern countryside of Aleppo and the surroundings of the city of Izazz, where confrontations had been breaking out with ISIL since the beginning of 2014. Throughout three years of fighting, people of Manbij offered more than two hundreds martyrs in the confrontations with ISIL, besides a multiplied number of wounded and injured. 

Manbij city’s rejection of ISIL authority was not on the military level only, but rather on the civil one too. Manbij was the first Syrian city to carry out a peaceful civil strike on 18.05.2014 protesting against ISIL practices. This strike claimed dozens of martyrs and detainees who have been harassed by ISIL. 

After four years of the Syrian revolution, and after the major incursion of terrorist groups into the Syrian territory, the declaration of war on terror became a priority of the US administration, which started to look for a local ally that might contribute in the fight against ISIL without confronting the forces of Al-Assad regime. This ally was (the Syrian Democratic Forces) under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

On 13.06.2016, the Syrian Democratic Forces laid a siege to the city of Manbij declaring the war on ISIL, and supported by an intense American air cover. And so, in the context of this goal, Americans contributed in providing full legitimacy to the Democratic Union Party as a political and military force on the Syrian territory, seeking, in coordination with the international community, to fight against terrorism and eliminate it from Syria. However, the nature of the siege -which was imposed on Manbij- and the manner in which the battle was conducted, clearly suggested that the Syrian Democratic Forces with the Coalition’s support were not only aimed at expelling ISIL, but also were seeking to destroy the city, as if the citizens of Manbij were all accused of belonging to ISIL. Which raises more than one question about the absence of the role of all the Free Army factions, or disregarding it from the battle of Manbij, as well as the role of the city in confronting ISIL and its sacrifices over two years and a half. Taking into consideration that the war on ISIL was initiated by the Free Army prior to the formation of (the Syrian Democratic Forces), besides that the city of Manbij has an Arab majority, and the nature of its revolutionary and political movement embodied a good host for the Free Army unlike any other national, military or Islamic faction.

Going back to the battle that took place in the city of Manbij and its countryside, we find that there was a US desire to block the city from its four sides leaving no outlet for the enemy to escape, what forced the latter to desperately defend through street fighting, suicide attacks and booby-traps. This threatened the lives of (250000) of civilians in the city, in addition to –the most important thing- of ignoring the courage of Manbij city against ISIL and Al-Assad together over two years and a half. And also ignoring all what its people have offered on both civil and military levels from sacrifices, blood, displacement and exodus. Was this American disregard because of the acquisition of the other party (the Syrian Democratic Forces) of combat and organizational efficiency?

Not only that, but the truth is that the Free Army factions are still advocating the project of change with a priority to fight against Al-Assad regime and overthrow it as the origin of terrorism, and ISIL is nothing but one of its terrorist manifestations. Therefore, we find that what happened was not only excluding of the Free Army from the battle, but punishing the entire city of Manbij by means of this horrible siege as if the whole city with its residents is ISIL.  

Seventy days of siege! They came to end by expelling ISIL from the city. But the real heroes of the tragedy were the civilians who defied death from ISIL snipers at times and from the coalition’s aircraft at other times, bearing the brunt of the worst living conditions in the history of the city. It reached to a point where speaking about the lack of food, drink and shelter became a secondary matter compared to the dead bodies on the streets that no one dared to lift and bury because of the snipers, which made the citizens bury their dead in house gardens and public parks. Perhaps the massacre of (Al-Tukhar) village, 20 km to the north of Manbij, which claimed the lives of 120 civilians in an air raid of the coalition on the morning of 19.07.2016, was an everlasting mark in the memories of the region’s inhabitants.

Today, the citizens of Manbij city may find some relief and security under the existence of SDF, comparing to their great sufferings under ISIL authority. But this small percentage of safety is flawed by major irritants that put them “between Scylla and Charybdis”. Perhaps the most important of these irritants is:

  1. The leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) exclusively governs the city, manages its affairs and controls its capabilities and destiny, and it is the real decision maker. What is said about a local council consists of the entire city’s components is only for media purposes.
  2. The number of forcibly displaced and emigrated persons from Manbij reached about (100000) citizens, mostly activists, writers, politicians and members of the Free Army. SDF fights all of them and confiscates the properties and houses of some of them because they refuse to join the ranks of (the Syrian Democratic Forces). And the only available charge for all of them is (Turkey’s agents).
  3. It is a painful paradox when the elite of the people of Manbij, who carried the banner of the revolution, are deprived and prohibited from returning to their homes. At the same time, we see a number of Al-Assad regime supporters and its defenders, members of the so-called (People’s Assembly) and other leaders in Al-Baath party of Al-Assad, roam about in full coordination with SDF authorities.

The return of conflict over Manbij

The increase of the regional and international influence on the Syrian territory led to mainstream the principle of “power-sharing”, which effectively means dividing the Syrian geography into spheres of influence for the international parties of conflicting interests as follows:

  1. Damascus and the Syrian coast across Homs and Aleppo (Useful Syria) are under the control of Al-Assad regime and its allies the Russians and Iranians.
  2. The northern strip parallel to the Turkish borders (Marie, Izazz, Al-Bab, Jarabulus, and Afrin) is under the Turkish influence.
  3. Manbij and the other areas to the east of the Euphrates River, in addition to the Syrian south (Daraa, Quneitra), are under the American influence.

Certainly this international sharing of the Syrian territory was not and will never be fixed. It is always subject to modification due to the change of the regional and international interests and their instability on one hand, and also to the change of the balance of power on ground on the other hand.

The fall of Manbij under the American influence –geographically speaking- made its destiny condemned with the degree of the Turkish-American understandings, as well as the undisciplined nature of the relationship between Ankara and Washington. Turkey sees that the withdrawal of the Kurdish protection forces from Manbij is a matter of national security. The Turks don’t conceal their strong resistance against establishing any national Kurdish entity on the Syrian territory adjacent to their borders. So the withdrawal of the Kurdish forces to be under the influence of any other party is very essential to Ankara, which aims at obstructing the project of (Rojava) that means the establishment of a Kurdish entity from al-Hasaka in the east to Afrin in the west, with the Turks fear of its possible expansion to the city of Idlib.

The relationship between Turkey and the US throughout the years (2016 – 2017) has been characterized with intensity and tension. Turks have long complained about the military support of Washington to the Syrian Democratic Forces. This resentment reached to accusing the Americans of deceit and lies at times, and of abandonment of Turkey – their partner in NATO- at other times.

Perhaps the media messages of the American officials were mostly trying to reassure the Turkish side, and suggest that the American-Kurdish relationship is centered on fighting ISIL only, and will not extend to other areas. But all these messages didn’t succeed in eliminating the Turkish fears especially after ISIL disappearance from Manbij and from al-Rakka afterwards.

On 24.08.2017, the day on which Turkey and the Free Army factions announced the liberation of (Jarabulus) city, as a part of the Operation Euphrates Shield, Vice President of the United States Joe Biden was visiting Ankara in an attempt to narrow the gap between Washington and Ankara. In the press conference that followed his meeting with the Turkish officials, Biden declared that the Kurdish protection forces must leave Manbij to the east of the Euphrates. The Turks considered this public declaration as an American promise or recognition of the withdrawal of SDF from Manbij.

After taking control by the Turkish forces and the Euphrates Shield factions over Afrin on March 18, 2018, Turkey started to see Manbij as an urgent target, especially since the whole consultations between the US Secretary of State Tillerson and the Turkish officials suggested an American leniency towards this goal. All eyes were on the day of March 21, 2018, on which the American-Turkish joint committees were supposed to meet to discuss the mechanisms of the withdrawal of SDF forces from Manbij. However, the changes made by the US President Donald Trump in the US administration, most notably the dismissal of US Secretary of State Tillerson, resulted in postponing the meeting to the 23rd of the same month. The two parties have met indeed on the mentioned date. But the outcomes of the meeting were ambiguous, which suggests the reluctance of the US to abandon the presence of SDF forces in Manbij. This led the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Maulud Jawish Ughlu (Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu) to say: “we reached to an understanding with the US side about the city of Manbij, but we didn’t reach to an agreement”

The withdrawal of the Syrian Democratic Forces from Manbij and the domination of the Euphrates Shield factions supported by the Turkish army over the city are still a Turkish priority now. Even though the Turkish decision of storming the city of Afrin was decisive and quick, but the decision to storm Manbij is certainly a different matter. Perhaps this is due to the unwillingness of the Turks to involve in a direct military confrontation with the USA, which maintains a military presence in the vicinity of the city. And perhaps Turkey’s avoidance of this confrontation makes the future of the city of Manbij subject to political contestations without any definite timeframe between both sides. Would Turkey be more patient about the American procrastination or might there be an unexpected surprise?

The city of Manbij is densely populated today. But at the same time it is crowded with armies and militias of mingled identities. Streets and markets might seem crowded. And there might be an active commercial and economic movement. But that could never hide the deep feeling of its own people that their city is experiencing the hardest degree of expatriation, as if it knows that the crowdedness over its earth is of strange feet, and the breaths of its own people are burning with homesickness.

[1] Byzantine frontier province

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