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Wladimir van Wilgenburg

Kurds, rebels in rat race to seize ISIS territory

A competition has erupted between Kurdish and Turkish-backed rebels to take areas of the Syrian-Turkish border controlled by ISIS

Syrian rebels fighting ISIS along the Turkish border. (Facebook/Al-Moutasem Brigade)

ERBIL – The Syrian Kurds are preparing to take town of Manbij in Aleppo province, a move that would put further pressure on the Islamic State and its 98-kilometers pocket of territory in northern Syria. The Kurdish offensive comes in the wake of ISIS’s attack in the Belgium capital of Brussels on March 22, which killed at least 32 people. “Especially after terrorist attacks, clearing out this 98-kilometer zone is more crucial,” Mutlu Çiviroğlu, a Kurdish affairs specialist told NOW.

“These people that attacked Brussels most likely traveled from Turkey to Syria, and used the Manbij corridor to exit and enter Syria. So for the security for Europe, it is the best to clear out the corridor,” he added.

“As to why the Manbij pocket is important, it represents a major border crossing point where foreign fighters can cross into Syria from Turkey,” Colonel Christopher Garver, a spokesperson for the US-led coalition against ISIS, told the news agency ARA news.

“In regards to a plan to retake Manbij, I don’t want to speak about potential future operations for obvious security reasons, but if there is a pocket of the ISIS out there on the battlefield, we of course want to attack it to root them out,” Col. Garver added.

“The formation of the councils indicates two things about a Manbij [offensive]: that it’s imminent and that it forms part of the larger federal strategy of the Kurdish led forces in northeast Syria,” Dr Jonathan Spyer, the director of the Rubin Center in Israel, said. 

 
The Syrian Kurds last Tuesday set up a civilian council in the town of Sarrin and selected an Arab man and a Kurdish woman as co-leaders. “Today 43 people from Manbij, mostly social leaders, met in the cultural center of Sarrin, some 45 km south of Kobane, to form a constituent assembly for Manbij,” Idris Nassan, a former official from the Kurdish town of Kobani, told NOW on Tuesday.

“The meeting discussed some very important points on to how administer Manbij after she has been liberated from ISIS control. Generally, they agreed on a non-central administration for Syria and a democratic one for Manbij,” Nassan added.

US analysts say the multi-ethnic administration proposed for Manbij comes from the model of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a joint Arab and Kurdish force that was established with US encouragement in October 2015.

“The blueprint for building up a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian security and governance structure for northern Syria has been in place by the groups that would become the Syrian Democratic Forces for several years now,” Nicholas Heras, a Washington-based Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security, told NOW.

“This forward-thinking and pragmatic strategy [by the Kurds] toward encouraging pluralism in northern Syria was and is appealing to the United States, and it is one of the reasons why the US has put a significant amount of energy into supporting the development of the Syrian Democratic Forces and continues to support it as a necessary part of the anti-ISIS campaign.”

However, the move is most likely to be opposed by Turkey, which does not want the Kurds to link up the Kurdish administrations of Kobane and Afrin, and previously told the Kurds and the United States that the Jarablus-Azaz line is a ‘red line’ for Turkey that the Kurds must not cross.

"We are the sons of Manbij and Turkey has no right to oppose our choice to liberate our town,” Sharvan Darwish, a senior commander of a Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) attached to the SDF, told NOW. "A joint leadership has been elected and deputies with representation of all components, including Circassians. For security reasons we have not announced some of the names."

On Monday, US officials arrived in Turkey to discuss the urgent need to close the Manbij corridor. “Turkey has two conditions over Manbij operation. First Turkey asked the US to encourage Syrian Arab Forces, who are among the SDF, to work with Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army troops to clean ISIS from the north of Syria,” Ragıp Soylu, a Turkish journalist from the Daily Sabah, told NOW.

“Those Arab Forces who want to join Turkish-backed FSA groups need to go through a vetting process. Turkey also required better air cover for these FSA forces for their operation in Manbij-Marea line,” he added, in reference to the strip of territory along the Syrian-Turkish border where Ankara previously proposed setting up a safe zone to prevent Kurdish expansion.


Recently, rebel groups backed and armed by Turkey advanced from Azaz and captured the border crossing in Al-Rai.

 

“There are some movements in northern Aleppo [province] controlled by Turkey. They are launching attacks against ISIS. This is all a game to prevent the US going to Manbij,” Çiviroğlu, the Kurdish affairs official added. “Once the area is cleared of ISIS, Turkey believes there will be no reason for the US to go ahead with an operation that will give leverage to the YPG,” he said.

Therefore, it looks like there is now a rat race between US-backed rebels and Turkish-backed rebels to take the territory from ISIS in northern Syria. US officials have been pushing Turkey for over two years to do more to close the corridor.

“If the operation does not come through, it would enable the YPG to reach Afrin and end the two year military and economic embargo on the area,” Çiviroğlu told NOW.
 
According Çiviroğlu, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could not convince the US administration to cease their support to the YPG. “Erdoğan obviously could not convince them to stop the Manbij operation, because the US is making moves toward the area,” he added.

However, the US will also back Turkish-backed rebels in their advance towards Jarablus, with rebels in the area reportedly receiving weaponry from the US.

“Turkey wants to build a safe zone from Azaz to Jarablus, which I think Europe and German will also support, as long the Syrian people [in the area] will stay there,” Çiviroğlu said.

Germany recently changed its position on a Turkish safe-zone plan, fearing the mass wave of refugees moving towards Europe. Turkish officials used the Syrian refugee crisis to gain more influence over European countries, while the US has given a cold shoulder to Turkey on its Syrian policy.

US officials now hope that the competition between Turkish and Kurdish backed rebels will finally lead to the closing the Turkish border, which ISIS militants have exploited for years to move in and out of Syria.

Syrian rebels fighting ISIS along the Turkish border. (Facebook/Al-Moutasem Brigade)

'Once the area is cleared of ISIS, Turkey believes there will be no reason for the US to go ahead with an operation that will give leverage to the YPG.'