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Residents desperate as anti-IS forces move on Manbij

North Syria town's city council says dozens of appeals for help coming every hour but concerns about Kurdish-led liberation linger
Syrian Democratic Forces fire at IS targets near Ayn al-Issa on 27 May 2016 (MEE/Wladimir van Wilgenburg)

KOBANE, Syria - The fight to retake the Islamic State (IS) group's stronghold of Manbij was intensifying on Wednesday, with sources indicating the northern Syrian town could fall as early as next week. 

The US-led anti-IS coalition has so far carried out almost 20 air strikes near the strategic town, levelling IS headquarters, communication towers, several bridges and other key targets, the coalition said in a statement.

The aerial support comes just a day after US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic forces (SDF) on Monday launched an attack on the Manbij pocket, hoping to cut IS supply lines and further stem the flow of foreign fighters.

“Twelve thousand fighters, mostly Arabs, launched the campaign from three lines - Tishrin Dam, 60km south of Kobane; Qara Qozaq bridge, 40 km southwest Kobane; and Shamiya,” said Idris Nassan, a former senior Kurdish official. He estimated that so far nine villages have been captured.

“The operations aim to divide IS-controlled territories in Raqqa and Aleppo’s northern countryside and stop every chance to bring any new supplies and enforcements through the IS-controlled border gate of Jarablus, at the Turkish border,” he added.

Sources on the ground told Middle East Eye that the city has been choked under IS’s yolk and that its population is desperate for Manbij to be rid of the hardline fighters.

“It makes one laugh and cry at the same time. The city has seen persecution, poverty, hunger, and blood, and the persecution of women,” said Sheikh Farouk al-Mashi, who heads up the newly appointed head the 43-member council for city of Manbij.

The council is currently housed just outside the city and is waiting to enter the town as soon as it is captured.

Mashi told MEE that he was receiving countless messages from people asking for help, with dozens of appeals coming every hour.

IS has reportedly been carrying out almost daily beheadings and executions since it captured the town in January 2014, with scores arrested and allegedly tortured and harsh punishments for a plethora of crimes enforced.

“Even with this risk, they call us, but the people are tired,” Mashi said. “Maybe because of these phone calls and messages, these civilians could be beheaded.”

Abu Mohammed, a 35-year-old Kurdish civilian who fled the town a year ago but still has family in IS prisons there, told MEE that he and his relatives were all persecuted for being Kurdish.

“I was in prison for three months with my brother and father,” he said. “The torture is unimaginable.”

“Sometimes you see slaughtered bodies, without heads. I haven’t seen anything Islamic about them. When I was arrested, they tied the back of my hands and tied me to the roof - it hurt a lot.

“They will torture you until you admit that you are FSA [Free Syrian Army], PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] or YPG [People’s Protection Forces]. Some people will just want to die from being tortured too much, so they confess that they are members and get executed.”

Kurdish overreach?

Despite IS’s harsh tactics, however, the mixed ethnic and religious backgrounds of the residents of the town and the surrounding area (70 to 80 percent of whom are Sunni Arab) has raised questions about whether the current anti-IS forces will be able to avoid fanning sectarian resentments.

The council is 70 to 80 percent Arab and unnamed American defence officials have insisted that the offensive is "Arab-led," and "less than 20 percent of the fighters engaged in the fight are YPG".

Mashi told MEE that the YPG were not even part of the campaign to liberate the town, but the information is very mixed, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights refuting this and saying the YPG are dominating the assault. 

“We are a liberating force, and we are not occupiers,” Mashi said, while urging people to stay in their homes until the anti-IS offensive was compete and pledging to offer security as soon as the fighters were driven out.

Turkey has in the past firmly opposed the offensive on Manbij, out of concern that Kurds could use the operation to open a corridor connecting the Kurdish cities of Kobane and Efrin, which is located directly on the Turkey border. 

But sources on the ground insisted that the town’s recapture be a number-one priority.

Mohammed, the Kurdish former resident, said: “Eighty to 90 per cent of the Arabs don’t like IS, because everything is forbidden and not allowed.”

Abu Zaid, a 46-year-old civilian who left Manbij two weeks ago and used a pseudonym for security reasons because his family is still in the town, told MEE that life had deteriorated sharply under IS rule.

“The people are very tired of IS, we don’t have satellite TV, fuel is expensive, and water pumps are forbidden,” he said.

“After the Tisreen dam was liberated, the number of people who were beheaded daily increased from 15 to 20 people as revenge, because they know the people in Manbij support the local [Kurdish-led] administration [in Kobane].”

Abu Zaid added that his relatives in the town were anxious and highly “stressed”.

“Some people say the Kurds will punish us, but we don’t care,” he said, while adding that he believed the FSA, not the YPG would “liberate” the town.