'They were hitting women in the streets because of the colour of their clothes. And if anyone supported the SDF, they would parade them in the streets of Manbij market with their lips sewed'
Tens of thousands of civilians were trapped inside the northern Syrian city of Manbij as US-backed fighters of the Manbij Military Council assisted by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had surrounded the Islamic State (IS) group stronghold on Friday evening.
Amid the offensive against IS in the Manbij region, local Arabs told Middle East Eye they are happy with the advances of the SDF coalition of Kurds and Arabs since the start of Ramadan, and that there was no evidence of displacement or mistreatment of Arab civilians.
The Turkish government has often accused Syrian Kurds of ethnic cleansing of Arabs. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu raised concerns that Kurdish elements within the SDF would carry out such cleansing and called for the US to promise that Syrian Kurdish fighters would not maintain a presence west of the Euphrates River.
Kurdish officials responded that Arabs are spearheading the campaign as part of the Manbij Military Council, not Kurds.
On the ground, it seems that Arabs around Manbij have grown tired of IS slaughtering their fellow Muslims, and have welcomed the advances of the SDF that encircle Manbij.
This has come at a high price. The siege has trapped tens of thousands of civilians within the IS bastion, and according to Kurdish news site Kurdistan24, IS militants disguised as SDF fighters massacred 37 people in Ghandoura after the villagers shouted pro-SDF slogans.
On Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitor, said warplanes from the US-led coalition were conducting heavy bombing raids on Manbij. It added that 159 IS militants, 22 SDF troops and 37 civilians had been killed, mainly by bombing raids, since the alliance launched its offensive on 31 May.
Manbij was an important hub for IS foreign fighters to enter Syria, and from there IS plotted attacks against Europe, the US, and Turkey, U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter said last week.
It’s no surprise that regional locals welcome the destruction of IS, as they were one of the few locales to protest against draconian IS rule last November.
As a result, the villagers were surprisingly frank and open with their opinions and were not afraid to speak on camera or in front of journalists, in expressing their joy at getting rid of IS.
“We offer our thanks to them and we are grateful to them,” Afaf Tarboush, a woman in her 30s, told MEE with a smile on her face about the SDF fighters who were handing out bread to civilians.
“We didn’t dare to go outside our homes and we always had to cover our faces and hands,” she said. “People lived in a grave under the control of IS, after the liberation we feel that we are born again.”
“IS planted horror and fear in our hearts,” said Fawaz Mahmoud, 31, who shaved his beard when the SDF took his village. “We haven’t experienced anything like this. They were hitting women in the streets because of the colour of their clothes. And if anyone supported the SDF, they would parade them in the streets of Manbij market with their lips sewed,” he said.
One Arab women immediately removed the IS-imposed full-face veil in front of a photographer, after her village was taken from IS.
“They never listened to our needs and complaints, if we had a dispute, they would just say come to the frontlines and fight,” Mahmoud added.
“Sometimes they tried to provoke you to speak against them, so they could force you to do religious courses.”
He denied rumours that Arabs were joining IS to defend themselves against the Kurds. “We didn’t have medicine, employment or health-care, but despite of all of this we didn't join IS,” he said.
“They tortured women in front of their families, thank God we got rid of IS, and may God save the SDF,” Mahmoud said.
“IS wouldn't let us breathe, we are happy they got rid of them,” Steif Hussien, 55, from Xusfa Adasa village said. He complained, however, about a lack of international humanitarian support. “We haven’t received anything from international organizations.”
Zagros Serhad, a Kurdish fighter, said they asked civilians to leave their villages because it is dangerous being close to the frontlines. One child was injured by IS artillery fire and an IS explosive killed a civilian when he entered his house.
“We asked them, but they don’t want to leave their villages,” he said. “In our history, we don’t have a culture of oppression to force them,” he said. “That’s why we just leave them and provide them with safety,” he added.
Civilians also fiercely deny reports that suggest they would join IS to fight against the Kurds.
“You cannot describe IS as human beings, they are monsters, and deal with humans as inhuman,” said Iyad Ibrahim al Jumayli, a man in his 20s who used to live in the now-besieged city of Manbij.
“No one joins IS, but some people may be forced to because they cause poverty and use poverty as a means to control us. That’s why some helped them, not because they believe in them,” he said.
Moreover, he said, IS foreign fighters control the city of Manbij. “There were Chechens, Tunisians, Chinese, Saudis, Egyptians, Libyans, Jordanians, even French people. The city was full of foreign fighters, and they used to talk in standard Arabic,” Jumayli said.
The fact that IS uses Manbij as a hub for foreign fighters is one of the reasons the US-led coalition backs the SDF offensive in spite of Turkish opposition.
“Manbij is where we believe the Paris attackers, the Brussels attackers, they all kind of pulse through this area, from Raqqah up to Manbij, and then out to the capitals where they had organized their attacks,” US envoy Brett McGurk said on Friday.
Civilians were generally supportive of coalition air strikes, and denied that they hurt civilians. “They just target armed people with weapons. I can provide evidence, there are six bodies of IS fighters near here, and they were armed,” Jumayli said.
Some civilians, however, were also critical, but they were not afraid to speak as they might be with Syrian government soldiers or IS militants who often tortured or killed civilians when criticised.
Abu Jaba, 32, complained in front of an Arab SDF fighter that one of the rooms of his house was mistakenly destroyed by a fighter with a truck.
“He should be punished, this is democracy,” he said, while the Arab fighter smiled. He didn't want to say if he supported the Syrian opposition or President Bashar al-Assad. “We just need safety and we need aid,” he said, complaining about a lack of bread.
Mohammed, 21, a villager from Kisfa al Madasa, said he doesn’t know if the SDF is good or not. “Until now it’s fine,” he said about his treatment by SDF fighters. “The people who control you, you follow their orders,” he said. Nor would he offer an opinion on whether IS is bad, saying only: “You are familiar with the situation under IS.”
Many civilians have no idea if they would like to join a federal system that is being set up by the Kurds and their Arab allies. “I don’t know anything about federalism, we just wanted to be liberated,” Jumayli said.
The next challenge after Manbij is taken will be the restoration of services by a new administration. “We don’t need just a Manbij military council, we need schools, electricity,” he said.
Sheikh Farouk al-Mashi, co-head of the Manbij civilian council established to take control of the city in the future, promised that they will work to restore services. “We will activate all institutions in Manbij, education, health-care, and culture, that were destroyed under IS,” he said.
There may be pressure from the US-led coalition on the SDF to treat the Arab civilians well, but it has not yet provided any non-military aid to help the local administrations set up by Kurds and Arabs to provide displaced people with food, water and medical supplies, or to rebuild cities destroyed by war, including Kobani, Shadadi, and maybe in the future, Raqqah. This could possibly undermine the campaign against IS.
A UN humanitarian agency said that 20,000 civilians have been displaced by the offensive and that it could potentially uproot more than 200,000. But so far, no humanitarian organizations are providing support on the ground.
“In general, NGOs cannot enter the region, because of the closed borders,” Ibrahim Kurdo, a foreign relations official, said about the Turkish border and the Iraqi-Kurdish border.
However, US envoy McGurk said on Friday that they persuaded the Kurdistan region of Iraq to open its border to get humanitarian relief flowing in.
Even the city of Kobane, which became a symbol for defeating IS last January but has now been almost forgotten, doesn’t have much support or aid for rebuilding.
“Seventy percent of our city was destroyed; we need agriculture, relief and aid,” Anwar Muslim, a former lawyer and head of Kobani’s local government, told MEE.
“We placed our hopes in international organisations, but they have done nothing."