The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and a number of ethnically Arab factions, successfully captured the city of Manbij in northern Syria from ISIS on August 12. However, the operation to seize the city, which lasted for 10 weeks and proved to be more difficult than expected, seems to be the easy part compared to future plans. The Manbij offensive was a test run that the US-led coalition hopes to replicate in future operations against Raqqa, ISIS’s de-facto capital in Syria. The SDF’s military’s successes against ISIS in northern Syria have also created tensions between Arabs and Kurds. Kurdish forces have been accused of violations against Arab communities in areas seized from ISIS, which has led to feelings of fear and mistrust among Syrian Arabs about the Kurdish-led SDF alliance. The offensive against the majority Arab city of Manbij was, therefore, designed by the US-led coalition as a potential model to mitigate these ethnic tensions by putting Syrian Arabs in the forefront of fighting and administration of the captured territory. The operation was also an important step in attempting to isolate and weaken ISIS in the area before the big battle expected in Raqqa. However, it seems that the SDF may have different priorities, rather than heading directly to Raqqa and leaving Manbij to be governed by locals.
The new strategy adopted in the Manbij operation aimed to assure the Arab majority with the city, as well as neighboring Turkey, that Kurdish forces would leave the area after the fighting was complete, leaving only Arab forces to run the city. The military council of Manbij, a group fighting within the SDF, launched an offensive on June 1 to capture the city from ISIS and cut the group off from Syria’s northwestern border with Turkey. Located close to the Turkish border, Manbij has served as a key transit point along ISIS’s supply route to Raqqa, allowing them to transport fighters and equipment in and out of the country. According to the original SDF mission plan, Syrian Arabs would spearhead the offensive while Kurdish forces would only represent about a fifth or sixth of the overall fighting force. The Kurdish fighters were to assist Arab fighters, who would be in charge of securing and running the city after the battle.
Allowing locals to govern themselves is a crucial test for the success of the Manbij model and the willingness of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — the dominant Kurdish actor on the ground in Syria —to share power. The unstable security situation in Manbij and the booby traps planted by ISIS make the situation there fragile, leading to extra security measures and a delay in handing power over to locals. However, the SDF has also been of accused by some activists of attempting to govern the recently captured city in manner similar to the previous ISIS occupiers. “We really appreciate everything the SDF fighters did in order to push ISIS out of Manbij. But it seems that we are moving from one dictator to another. Manbij’s local council, which was elected to run the city, was uprooted by ISIS before and now it is dissolved by the SDF,” said Hassan Hamidi, an activist from Manbij.
There are also concerns among locals that some groups within the SDF will attempt to attach Manbij to the de facto Kurdish autonomous regions in Syria. “We were really hoping that the SDF would be able to share power with locals and allow them to govern themselves. However, it seems that it was a trick. Everything has been planned long in advance. They appointed people, who we do not know, to run the city. They also gave Manij a Kurdish name, which is ‘Mabuk’, and imposed a federal system on us. There is nothing left for us to decide,” said Mustafa al-Nifi, a local resident from Manbij. However, the PYD denies such accusations. “We are not imposing anything on anyone. We created a new local council and appointed people to run it temporarily, as it is difficult to organize elections in Manbij now,” said Kadar Biri, a member of the PYD party from Afrin. Although the creation of a local council was a positive step, imposing membership of the PYD’s choosing without coordinating with local notables, activists and members of the previous council has sent the wrong signals about the PYD’s commitment to inclusiveness and power-sharing with non-Kurdish communities in northern Syria.
There is also evidence that the SDF’s actions after seizing Manbij differed from their stated intent of using the city as a springboard to assault the ISIS capital of Raqqa. In a clear indication of the direction in which they want to move, SDF commanders announced the establishment of the Al-Bab Military Council soon after capturing Manbij. The SDF's priority therefore seems to be continuing their advance southwest from Manbij to Al-Bab, and not southeast towards Raqqa, as their American backers would prefer. By capturing Al-Bab, the Kurds would completely cut ISIS off from Syria’s northwestern border with Turkey. However, it will also help them connect the Kurdish-controlled western canton of Afrin to the Rojava region (also known as Western or Syrian Kurdistan). Any moves to expand the territory under Kurdish control would certain to be met with opposition from Turkey, who views the PYD as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Such an expansion would also likely lead to armed confrontation with Syrian Arab rebel groups who control parts of those territories.
It is still not clear how things might develop in Manbij after the city’s liberation from ISIS rule. The revolutionary council of Manbij and a number of rebel groups from the city issued statements denouncing the SDF and the new council affiliated with them, which illustrates that locals are not currently happy with the way city is being administered post-ISIS. Thus, the SDF should rethink their strategy in Manbij and focus on addressing the concerns of locals, before their resentment leads to civil or even an armed confrontation.
Haid Haid is a Syrian researcher who focuses on foreign and security policy, conflict resolution, and Kurdish and Islamist movements. He tweets @HaidHaid22