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Inside the Small But Important City of Manbij in Syria
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Manbij is a good place to understand the jigsaw puzzle of competing fiefdoms into which Syria is now divided and the reasons why the multiple wars that have torn the country apart will go on for several more years. A largely Arab city with a population of 300,000, it is situated east of Aleppo and west of the Euphrates river, but has been effectively controlled by the Kurds since they captured it from Isis after a long siege in 2016.

Turkey has been repeatedly threatening to attack Manbij to end the Kurdish presence, though the Kurds, for their part, say they are no longer in control but have handed over power to a local body called the Manbij Military Council. The Turks claim that this just means that the Kurds have changed their uniforms, but the council, which has about 5,000 fighters, acts in concert with US troops, so, if Turkish troops and the local militias they work with do advance, it will be at the risk of a shooting war with the US.

The Americans in Manbij are certainly very visible and this is presumably intentional. We saw a convoy of five armoured vehicles, the lead one carrying the Stars and Stripes, racing towards Manbij from the bridge across the Euphrates. Mohammed Abu Adel, the leader of the Military Council, says the US soldiers never go into the city “but are very active in the frontlines”.

After seven years of war, Syrians are used to living in a state of permanent crisis, so the prospect of a Turkish assault has had only a limited impact. Ibrahim Kaftan, the co-chairman of the executive council running the city, says that when Turkey invaded the nearby Kurdish enclave of Afrin on 20 January, “about 80 per cent of the people here thought the Turks were going to attack us, but now they are more optimistic”.

In the crosshairs of the Turkish army and its militia allies Manbij may be, but for all that it is a surprisingly bustling place. The streets are crowded and the shops are piled high with everything from oranges to wheelchairs. A few buildings have been reduced to heaps of rubble, blown up by US airstrikes targeting Isis during the siege of the city, but there is not the devastation that you see in the Kurdish city of Kobani on the other side of the Euphrates. The most striking sign of the Isis presence is a large cemetery in the centre of Manbij where its militants systematically smashed all the tombstones, which they saw as idolatrous.

Despite the Turkish threat, Manbij has become a boomtown thanks to the chronic political fragmentation and instability which has ruined most Syrians. A prosperous trading city on the main highway to the east of the country, it had no great advantage before 2011 when Syria was united. But today it has the unique benefit of standing at the entrance to the vast territories to the east of the Euphrates captured by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) with US air support from Isis since 2015. “We are the only gateway for the Kurds,” says Kaftan, who explains that businessmen from Aleppo had poured into the city to profit from the trade with the 30 per cent of Syria now held by the Kurds.

The Syrian jigsaw puzzle is even more complicated than is portrayed by those neat maps shown on television in which different factions are shaded in contrasting colours. Groups that are fighting each other in one part of the country are fighting side by side in another. The country has the feel of medieval Italy in which every city and town had its own distinct politics, along with some powerful foreign sponsor.

One quickly gets used to living in a world of competing authorities. For instance, we left the de facto Kurdish capital at Qamishli early in the morning, but to get to the main highway we went down a winding country road. This is because we wanted to avoid the old link road which goes past Qamishli airport, still held by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad under a mutually beneficial agreement. Assad wants to retain a foothold in north-east Syria and the Kurds want to have the option of flying to Damascus, since otherwise they are isolated.

The problem for the Kurds in Syria is that they have been almost too successful militarily. Once a marginalised minority, they became the main ally of the US in defeating Isis over the last three years. The YPG are dedicated and experienced infantry, but what gave them their crushing advantage over Isis was that they could call in the devastating power of the US air force.

The development of a de facto Kurdish state enraged the Turks and the government in Damascus. To hold onto at least part of their gains, the Kurds need continuing US support, though Isis is defeated and this makes Washington’s long-term support uncertain. Probably, the US will stick with the Kurds because it would be ashamed, at least in the short term, to abandon them. Doing so too swiftly would also deter other potential US allies in the Middle East who might fear a similar fate.

What is interesting and perhaps ominous about Manbij is that control of this small city has become an issue that could see US and Turkish troops shooting at each other. The same pattern is visible in the rest of Syria where fierce local disputes, such as the attempt by the Syrian government to batter Eastern Ghouta into submission, turns into an international confrontation.


Yet the wars in Syria have now gone on for so long that they are almost impossible to end. A few issues have been decided: Assad is going to stay in power in Damascus, but his power is not going to extend to the whole country. Isis has been defeated, overwhelmed by the sheer number of its enemies. But Russia, US, Turkey and Iran have become so embroiled in Syria that they cannot afford to see their local allies and proxies destroyed.

Driving across the rain-soaked plains that the Kurds conquered over the last three years, one is struck by their great extent but also by their vulnerability. One day, Damascus and Ankara may unite to destroy them, and US willingness to guarantee their security is bound to ebb in time. A city like Manbij may benefit briefly from the political breakup of Syria, but it is too close to too many frontlines and will find it difficult to survive. The same could be said of Syria as a whole.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Russia, Syria, Turkey 
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  1. Patrick Cockburn seems to always and repeatedly attribute the defeat of ISIS in Syria exclusively and wholly to US air power in support of Kurdish ground forces without EVER mentioning Russia, Syrian government forces, Hezbollah or Iranian-backed forces, as if they had no part in the defeat of ISIS.

    If Russia had not stepped in at Syria’s request in September 2015, ISIS would have overrun Syria all while the US pretended to fight it, bombing ISIS for show only when and where it was not advancing against the Syrian government and people.

    As per the New York Times in May 2015: “So far, United States-led airstrikes in Syria have largely focused on areas far outside [Syrian] government control, to avoid the perception of aiding a leader whose ouster President Obama has called for.”

    In other words, the US only bombed ISIS where it was not actively attacking the Syrian state as a de facto regime change proxy force for the US.

    Only after Russia had turned the tide against ISIS in Syria, and its defeat was was largely written on the wall, did the US start to do a little more, forced to not have its inaction and remarkable ineffectiveness against ISIS exposed by Russian-Syrian-and-allies quick success, and to claim false credit for the now-foreseeable defeat of ISIS.

    This, by the way, parallels what the US did in WWII as well, holding back their promised Western front while the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, and only racing into Europe after the Soviets had turned the tide and the outcome was largely decided – to establish control of as much of Europe as possible and claim disproportionate credit for the defeat of the Nazis.

    Patrick Cockburn appears to be trying to establish such a narrative.

    • Replies: @anonymous
  2. “A largely Arab city with a population of 300,000” does not fit into a Kurdistan. It is not Kurd, and it has many differences in the thinking of its people beyond just ethnicity.

    If we are to create a Kurdistan for the largest ethnicity without its own country, then it is not done by grabbing up non-Kurd large cities.

    What is being done is thus NOT the creation of a Kurdistan. It is using the Kurds as cannon fodder for the projects of the US. That has always in the past ended with the US abandoning the survivors when they are not longer useful. It is not really promising for the Kurds or their project, and they are not advancing themselves by this over reach.

  3. Art says:

    The US generals are hiding our troops in Syria – of course the JMSM is silent, working for Israel. (Just like the generals.)

    When do we get our country and constitution back from the Jews?

    Think Peace — Art

  4. anonymous • Disclaimer says:
    @Canadian Cents

    This author like Juan Cole spreading lies of the CIA and MI6 to fool the public. These propagandists have been exposed repeatedly, but they do not stop their propaganda because they have been incorporated into the criminal Western propaganda campaign that serves the interest of the axis of evil US -Israel-Britain. They are trying to change the geopolitical design of the region by invasion, killing and looting like in WWI to create more COLONIES. Thus they are trying to hide their plan that they want to partition Syria to erect a SECOND ISRAEL, kurdistan, with the help of the traitor kurds.

    These propagandists do not want to believe that their plan is rotten and they will be thrown out of the region like a rotten rat and those kurds who directly helped the enemy will be destroyed. There is NO other way.

    Please view the criminal western plan for the partition of Syria.

    Arab Daily: British Diplomatic Cable Unveils US Plots to Disintegrate Syria

    “Unrestricted agreement of all members of the “Small Group” meeting to “no longer be satisfied with Lavrov’s honeyed words, in order to put Moscow under pressure”. For Satterfield, it is about getting the Russians to let Assad go, “through meetings of the Security Council and a broad public communication campaign,” believing that the announced re-election of Vladimir Putin positively undermined the Russian position.

    One of the conclusions of this first meeting of the “Small Group” is perfectly clear: “to reinvigorate Geneva so that Sochi becomes irrelevant”; France demanding more “transparency on the Russian position”. But it is still not to oppose “frontally” in Sochi “with the advantage of gathering a significant share of the Syrian civil society”, to bring back the “most positive contributions to Geneva, to renew and relaunch this format of Geneva.”

    The plan was designed in Washington according to Oded Yinon and participating party’s ideas such as “A CLEAN BREAK” by neocon zionist jews. To implement the vicious plan Bush regime staged 9/11 to invade, killing millions of innocent Muslims, and burning thousands of Children to death, and making millions more as refugees and destroying their countries in the process killing their scientists by thousands, looting their libraries and Museums, raping them in Abu Gharib. We never forget or forgive, and determine to DESTROY THE EVIL EMPIRE AND ITS PROPAGANDISTS.
    The following DOCUMENT exposes the criminal West intention of partitioning Syria to erect a second Israel, kurdistn, for the interest of the zionist, spread by the western propaganda by intelligent services and Mossad’s agents for zionist expansionist policy which the criminal west supports.

    Look how a comment exposes the US government propagandist pose as ‘liberal’, Juan Cole, who has supported all the invasions by the criminal US ‘presidents’ including the ‘first black president’ Obama, and continue to spread lies against Syria and president Assad to fool people. Progressives all over the world MUST expose these liars and war mongers every day. a cooment by eric:

    [It fascinates me Professor Cole how you counter the mainstream narrative so clearly to start:

    the International Criminal Court…is impeded from moving against people like Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is much more guilty of war crimes, including instituting Apartheid in the West Bank, than he is of petty corruption. It is impeded from moving against Muhammad Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, whose air force has targeted civilian targets like schools and hospitals in Yemen some 33% of the time.

    Formidable independence of thought. But in the next section, you seem to be transcribing state department or Pentagon press releases:

    Among the biggest war criminals in the world is Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. His military has completely disregarded the welfare of civilian populations when trying to take back parts of the country that had fallen into rebel hands.

    What independent evidence of these alleged war crimes do you have? From what I can see Aleppo was a ruin before the government forces took back the region. Within weeks of government control, citizens had started to move back to Aleppo and rebuild the city. It was possible to circulate in the streets and celebrate holidays. On the other hand, when the US retook Mosul and Raqqa, there was massive air bombing and mass torture and more white phosphorus. How one can blame Assad when one’s own military is guilty of war crimes (illegal munitions, mass murder of civilians), just waving them off as “collateral damage” astonishes me.

    While Bashar al-Assad’s father was a ruthless man with considerable blood on his hands, there’s no indication that his Western-educated ophthalmologist son shares any of Haffez’s bloodlust. Indeed, it was Bashar’s older brother, Basell who studied at the military academy and trained to become a future head of state.

    You yourself write:

    East Ghouta is under the political control of hard line Salafi militias such as the Saudi-backed Army of Islam and the Syrian Conquest Front (formerly the Nusra Front), which dream of sweeping into Damascus and turning Syria into a Taliban utopia for fundamentalist Islam. Pro-regime newspapers maintain that East Ghouta militias in the past couple days have launched intensive mortar fire on the capital of Damascus….

    If Mexican cartels together with Hispano-American revanchistes were to set up operations in San Antonio and attack Austin and Houston with mortar fire, how would the US government react? Clearly a government can’t tolerate this kind of threat to one’s capital city. Your editorial seems like just more of the US State Department line which goes something like this: “Follow our rules or we’ll kill you. Follow our rules and allow terrorists to destroy the rule of law in your country and eventually infrastructure and finally assassinate you.”

    There’s no winning hand here except resistance. And you wonder why Syrians (and President Assad) are fighting back. It’s to avoid the fate of Libya and Iraq. It seems to me you should be on the side of the Syrian people and not the neocons holdovers in the State Department.]

    Please inform the public about the propagandists of the Evil Empire pose as ‘progressives’!

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