MESOP : AN OPEN QUESTION – Will Manbij battle establish new relations between Syrian Arabs and Kurds? / US STATEMENT

The anti-ISIS coalition’s plan to put Syrian Arabs in the forefront of fighting and administration of the captured territory could ease Arab-Kurdish tensions / NOW MEDIA BEIRUT  16 June 2016 – By Haid Haid

The on-going offensive to capture the Manbij pocket is of significant importance to the anti-ISIS coalition, as the capture of the city could cut the terror group’s last remaining funnel to Europe, according to a statement to Reuters by US officials.

Manbij’s capture would further isolate ISIS and deprive it of its last supply line to the Turkish border, from which it smuggles weapons and foreign fighters into the country. The new tactics adopted by the armed groups involved in the operation has added further importance to the battle. The operation to take the pocket will be largely led by Syrian Arab fighters within the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a majority Kurdish-led coalition against ISIS. This differs from other SDF operations against ISIS where Kurdish forces made up the bulk of the fighting force. Kurdish fighters within the SDF have claimed that they will withdraw from Manbij after the military operation is completed, leaving Arab fighters to secure and stabilize the city.

Much depends on how this strategy will be implemented, which could change the dynamics of the fight against ISIS. What impact will this new strategy have on the relations between Arabs and Kurds in Syria? How will it impact the war against ISIS? Will the Manbij operation help reduce tensions between Syrian Kurds and Turkey? Will Turkey play a more active role in the US-led coalition against ISIS? 

The new strategy adopted in the Manbij operation aims to assure the Arab majority with the city and Turkey that the Kurdish forces will leave the area after the fighting is completed, leaving only Arab forces to run the city. The military council of Manbij, a group fighting within the SDF, launched a military offensive against ISIS in Manbij on June 1 to capture the city from ISIS and cut the group off from Syria’s northwestern border with Turkey. The operation also comes ahead of the SDF offensive against the city of Raqqa, ISIS de-facto capital in Syria, in an attempt to isolate and weaken the group before the big battle.

Syrian Arabs will be spearheading the offensive and Kurdish forces will only represent about a fifth or sixth of the overall fighting force, according to a statement by US officials to Reuters. US special operations forces deployed in Syria will also support the offensive on the ground, acting as advisors, but reportedly will not engage actively in the fighting. The operation will also be supported by US-led coalition air strikes as well as by Turkish firepower across the border. The Kurdish fighters will only assist the Arab fighters who will be in charge of securing and running the city after the battle. “After they take Manbij, the agreement is the [Kurdish] YPG will not be staying… So you’ll have Syrian Arabs occupying traditional Syrian Arab land,” a US official told Reuters.

The new strategy adopted in the Manbij operation could play a positive role in reducing tensions between Arabs and Kurds in Syria and prevent future conflicts between the two groups. The Kurdish forces within the SDF have previously been accused of committing violations against Arab communities in Syria, especially during their attacks in 2015 on Tal Abyad in near Raqqa and Al-Hawl in rural Hasakeh. The reported violations increased tensions between Kurds and Arabs and led to mistrust of the Kurdish-led SDF alliance among Syrian Arabs. According to Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, an activist organization, the recent attack on Raqqa pushed many local residents to join ISIS in order to protect their city from the attacking Kurdish forces. However, the new strategy, which will allow Arab forces to govern areas where Arabs are a majority, may help to assure Arab communities and speed up the fight against ISIS.

Turkey has long opposed advances by Kurdish forces along its border in order to prevent them from establishing an autonomous region there. This concern has reduced Turkey’s involvement in the US-led coalition’s offensives against ISIS, in which Syrian Kurdish fighters have played a prominent role. However, the new strategy seems to have reassured Turkey, which did not oppose the SDF offensive on Manbij and even agreed to provide firepower to the operation from across the border. Furthermore, rebel groups fighting in Marea reportedly received airdropped weapons from the US-led coalition for the first time after Turkish pressure. Improved cooperation between the US and Turkey would likely reduce tension between the SDF and rebel groups backed by Turkey and may allow for further military cooperation against ISIS.The US-led coalition against ISIS is likely to face many challenges in convincing all the different groups involved in this operation to stick to the plan. Further operations against ISIS in Syria will depend greatly on how the coalition will deal with theses challenges and whether they will successfully implement the new strategy. Rebel groups and activists are still skeptical about what the Kurdish forces will do next, due to contradicting statements issued by the US-led coalition and various SDF groups. Despite a guarantee from the official spokesman for the US-led coalition against ISIS that the SDF will not advance beyond Manbij, the head of defense in Kobane, Ismet Sheikh, promised to soon unite the splintered Kurdish administrations into one federal region: “Today we are in Manbij, but tomorrow we will be in Efrin, and we will link all the three cantons [Jazira, Kobane and Afrin].” A major challenge will be convincing Kurdish forces, who may aim to join the newly captured area with the Kurdish autonomous region or delay the withdrawal of forces for safety and security reasons, to leave Manbij once the offensive against ISIS is over.

The new strategy implemented by the US-led coalition in the Manbij operation, allowing Arab forces within the SDF to run and secure areas where Arabs are the majority, provides a good opportunity to further rollback ISIS without providing the group with legitimacy or damaging the US-Turkish relationship. It could also be a first step in repairing relations between Arabs and Kurds in Syria, which should become a priority to avoid future ethnic conflagrations during the conflict.

Haid Haid is a Syrian researcher who focuses on foreign and security policy, conflict resolution and Kurds and Islamist movements. He tweets @HaidHaid22