Turkish-backed forces and Manbij fighters face off near the town's outskirts. Locals say they will stop any invasion, and look to US support
MANBIJ, Syria – On opposing banks of the Sajur river, the Manbij Military Council and the Syrian rebels of operation "Euphrates Shield" face off. A crack of sniper fire from rebel lines sends MMC fighters ducking for cover, before they compose themselves and unleash a salvo of machine gun fire in reply.
The Sajur frontline is like many in war time - dull for long spells, then a flurry of nerves and a rush of adrenaline when the shooting starts. But this is no ordinary frontline. The MMC says it represents the local population, while the Syrian rebels are engaged by Turkey to push them over the eastern bank of the River Euphrates.
They are shooting at us from time to time with heavy weapons, snipers and M16s
- Rafiq, MMC fighter
"They are shooting at us from time to time with heavy weapons, snipers and M16s," said Rafiq, a fighter from Manbij on the Sajur front, named after the Sajur river that divides the warring sides. "There were five to four reconnaissance planes that flew over the area the last few days," he added.
Welcome to Manbij, the latest potential flashpoint in the multi-headed Syrian war. Turkey wants rid of the MMC, which it says is one and the same as the Kurdish YPG fighting group, and says it will take Manbij after finishing its operations against the "terrorist" group in Afrin to the east.
The MMC is sticking to its guns and denies it is YPG. In turn, the YPG rejects its designation as a terrorist organisation.
And the complicating factor for Turkey, unlike in its invasion of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin to the east, is the presence of American forces which back the YPG. Top US generals have visited the city to show their support after Turkey threatened to invade.
— Wladimir (@vvanwilgenburg) February 28, 2018
"Once Operation Olive Branch in Afrin is complete, Turkey will turn its attention to the rest of the YPG presence in northern Syria and the first target will be the city of Manbij," Ilnur Cevik, chief presidential adviser, wrote on Thursday in the Daily Sabah newspaper.
However, Rafiq says, the people of Manbij are not scared.
"I joined to protect our land from Turkish occupation," he said. "We are not scared because me and my comrades are here to defend it from any invasion or strikes by Turkish forces," he added.
Ali Ahmed, a 28-year-old civilian from Manbij, says Manbij has slowy returned to normality under the MMC and YPG.
"We do not want Turkey to enter Manbij, it is better for us and we do not want a fight with anyone or want any problems," he told MEE.
"We are not afraid of Turkey, and they will not be able to enter Manbij," said Mohammed, another civilian in Manbij.
Manbij was freed from the harsh rule of IS in August 2016 by the SDF. But it has been handed over to the MMC and the Manbij Civilian Council.
Unlike other Kurdish cities under SDF control, traditions of polygamy remain legal, and the city has its own administration and the education system is in Arabic.
Rafiq, the MMC fighter at his position (MEE/Wladimir Van Wilgenburg)
The view from Manbij
Mohammed Abu Adil, the leader of the MMC, sits in his office with his fellow fighters in the town of Manbij. His predecessor Abu Amjad was killed in an ambush while his forces were helping to liberate Raqqa from IS.
Now Abu Adil faces threats from Turkey, a NATO member with one of the biggest armies in the region, and allied rebels who in 2016 took control of areas bordering Manbij from IS, such as the town of Jarablus.
Turkey two years ago feared the SDF would advance further, link with Afrin and create a contiguous, Kurdish-dominated quasi-state on its border.
"We have liberated the city from IS, not Turkey, and we are currently here to defend our city, as we are the sons of this city and we know better to protect it from any external aggression," Abu Adil said.
Moreover, he said he was not afraid the US would handover Manbij to Turkey, after Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, met his US counterpart Rex Tillerson in Ankara on 16 February.
Tillerson told a news conference last month: "So we’re going to address Manbij first. It’s one of the first areas we’re going to work on. The United States made commitments to Turkey previously. We’ve not completed fulfilling those commitments."
Abu Adil in his office in Manbij (MEE/Wladimir Van Wilgenburg)
Cavusoglu added: "We also need to ensure that YPG is going to move to the eastern part of the Euphrates. We need to see the implementation together."
However, the MMC's leader says it’s unlikely the US would force these fighters to leave the city.
"For sure, the (US) coalition is here and in the frontline and confirmed they are against any operation," Abu Adil said. "Moreover, they are patrolling and taking surveillance.
"We are more than ready to repel any attack whether by Turkey or anyone else."
"After the last meeting between Tillerson and Cavusoglu, Turkey proposed to conducted join troops deployment and ousting YPG or PKK since every time they use different name," Abu Adil said.
"We can say to everyone, that the only force in Manbij is the Manbij Military Council and it’s native inhabitants," the commander said.
"Everybody knows that, since they were trained in special schools under the supervision of the coalition, and they know their names and information," he added.
"The coalition decision is very clear: we and MMC liberated Manbij and MMC is the legitimate part of Manbij and managing it," he said.
"They made it clear that since we are here we will continue together for stabilisation," he concluded.
A relationship, but not going steady
Coalition officials confirmed in an interview that they supported the MMC.
"The coalition’s official relationship in Manbij is with the Manbij Military Council, which was created to defend Manbij from Daesh (IS)," said its spokesman, Colonel Thomas Veale. "The MMC is a primarily Arab force made up of Manbij locals."
"We are concerned about the situation in northwest Syria, and we call on all parties to remain focused on defeating Daesh in Iraq and Syria, de-escalating and resolving the Syrian conflict so that life can return to a sense of normalcy for the Syrian people."
However, he added that the coalition did not have a "formal relationship" with the MMC or the local civil administration.
Let Erdogan first get rid of his problems, and finish Afrin, and then think about Manbij.
- Ibrahim Qaftan co-leader of Manbij civilian administration
At the building of the Manbij Civil Council, Ibrahim Qaftan, a native of the town and co-head of the local administration, says that his people do not need Turkey.
"You may have driven through the city, and seen how safe it is," he said, adding that there was no danger to his people.
He said some feared the threats of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who he referred to mockingly as "Sultan".
"Let Erdogan first get rid of his problems, and finish Afrin, and then think about Manbij."