Syrian rebels on outskirts of ISIL-held Manbij in north
ALEPPO // Thousands of civilians have fled Manbij as US-backed Arab-Kurdish fighters close in on what is the key supply route to ISIL’s stronghold in its so-called capital in Syria, Raqqa.
Fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were on the outskirts of Manbij and were ready to enter the ISIL-held city, but have yet to do so due to the presence of civilians inside, said Sharfan Darwish who is leading the SDF offensive.
“Any moment that we want to enter it, we can, but because of the presence of civilians in the city ... we are being cautious about entering the city,” said Mr Darwish said.
“There is news about many Daesh members escaping, and evacuating some areas of Manbij and booby-trapping them,” he said, adding that the alliance will enter “when the time comes”.
The “Manbij pocket” in north-east Syria was the only remaining section of territory used by ISIL to smuggle recruits and funds from Turkey across the border. The week-long offensive on the town of Manbij is one of two major assaults on the route.
On Wednesday, the SDF was between two and seven kilometres from Manbij, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory on Human Right and ISIL was allowing civilians to escape westward both in cars and on foot.
Out of a pre-war population of 120,000, about 20,000 people have remained in Manbij since the town was overrun by ISIL in 2014.
The ISIL supply route runs from Jarabulus on the border south through Manbij and winds south-east along the Euphrates through the town of Tabqa and on to Raqqa.
War planes operating from the USS Harry S Truman aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean have mounted at least 35 strikes since last week and the US military said the coalition had captured 344 square kilometres from ISIL since May 31. Washington has also deployed more than 200 special forces to back the SDF, which has between 3,000 and 4,000 Arab and Kurdish fighters, although the Syrian Observatory maintains most are in fact Kurds.
“We have surrounded Manbij from three sides and operations are progressing well,” said Mr Darwish. “Every day, we are liberating villages and the only route open to ISIL now is towards Aleppo city to the west.”
But in Aleppo at least 15 people were killed and many others wounded on Wednesday in air strikes on Syria’s largest city. According to the observatory, two children were among four people killed when barrel bombs hit Al-Marja district while ten died in a blast outside a hospital in Shaar neighbourhood. However, rescue workers put the number of dead at 23.
Aleppo was once Syria’s commercial powerhouse, but it has been a battleground since 2012 when rebels seized the east of the city confining the army to the west.
Violence there has escalated in the last two days with government forces pounding rebel-held eastern parts of the city with heavy air strikes while rebels are shelling western, government-held parts of Aleppo and civilians caught in the crossfire.
But for those who fled last week’s fighting between the SDF and ISIL in north-east Syria, there is a happier outcome. Several hundred have already returned to their homes which are now free of ISIL control. Awash Al-Aboud returned to her village, Kirdeh, between Manbij and the Euphrates river, which had been recaptured by the SDF after more than two years under ISIL control.
“For the past two and a half years, I felt like I was living among the dead because of the terror that ISIL imposed on us,” she said. “Today, a new life has started for us.”
Abu Mohammad, 35, from the farming town of Abu Qulqul, said life under the fanatics was so expensive that some residents were tempted to join them. “They used to tell us that whoever wants to live well must join our ranks, but I refused. I preferred to starve than to join them and oppress my brothers,” he said.
His wife, wearing a bright headscarf and carrying a toddler on her back, held up her arm and began to ululate — a sign of celebration and joy.
“Just being safe is enough,” she said.
On the outskirts of the village, architect Khalaf Al Moussa, from nearby Qana Al-Tahtani, said ISIL had imposed a system of fines and punishments during its rule over his hometown, also east of Manbij.
“We couldn’t roll up our trouser legs while we were farming our land — every time we did, they would fine us 1,000 Syrian pounds (Dh16.80),” he said, standing in front of a modest fruit orchard.
“If someone tried to criticise their behaviour, they would sew his mouth shut for a while, or they would cut his head off and hang him up for everyone to see,” Mr Al-Moussa added.
Rebel groups also broke through an ISIL siege in the northwestern town of Marea on Wednesday. Thousands of civilians were trapped in the town until the various rebel groups joined forces to launch a counter-attack, aided by an air-drop of weapons. The siege break has reopened the main road to the Turkish border.
As fighting for Tabqa and Manbij intensifies, it appears the battle for ISIL’s de facto capital of Raqqa city — which would be a much more symbolic victory — has taken a back seat.
The SDF’s offensive north of Raqqa last month began amid much fanfare, but progress appears to have slowed down.
* Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters