Female Manbij Military Council members attending a coalition training camp in northwest Syria on February 21, 2017. Photo: Master Sgt. Mark Burrell/US Army
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Under attack from Turkish forces, the Manbij Military Council has handed control of territory west of the city over to Syrian forces “in order to protect civilians.”
The local force responsible for security for the city of Manbij announced on Thursday that it had made an agreement with Russia to cede control of areas along its front line with the Turkish army and its allied Free Syrian Army (FSA) to Syrian state forces who will “be the dividing line between the Manbij Military Council Forces and areas controlled by the Turkish army and the Euphrates Shield elements.”
Under the agreement, villages west of the city will come under Syrian border guard control, putting a buffer between the Manbij Military Council and the Turkish and FSA forces engaged in Turkey’s operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria.
The deal was made after the FSA launched an attack on the Manbij forces in several villages on Wednesday, temporarily taking control of Tal Turin and Qara among other sites in the countryside southwest of the city. By Thursday, after 24 hours of clashes and shelling from both sides, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported, the Manbij forces were back in control of the area.
The Council announced on Thursday that they had killed 12 fighters in the clashes and seized a tank. The Observatory reported the death of at least six Euphrates Shield fighters and one from the Manbij side.
The Manbij council also reported that many families were displaced by the fighting.
The Syrian army intends to tighten its control over territory between Aleppo and the western-most Kurdish canton of Afrin in order to stop possible advances of both Turkey and ISIS, Iran’s Fars News reported, citing an unnamed military source.
Speaking to reporters earlier this week, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, coalition commander in Iraq and Syria, urged all forces to remain focused on defeating ISIS. “We encourage all forces to remain focused on the counter-ISIS fight and concentrate their efforts on defeating ISIS, and not toward other objectives that may cause the coalition to divert energy and resources away from Raqqa.”
The Manbij Military Council was formed by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to oversee retaking the city from ISIS last summer.
The Council is receiving support from the US-led global anti-ISIS coalition. As tensions heated up between Turkey and Manbij, the US Department of Defense published photographs this week of coalition forces training female Manbij Military Council members in “basic rifle marksmanship, and squad level weapons and movement techniques.”
The US described the forces as “a multi-ethnic force that includes Kurds, Arabs, Christians, Turkmen, Yazidis and others.”
Manbij was declared free of ISIS on August 12 last summer.
Later that month, Turkey launched its Euphrates Shield operation, the stated aim of which was to clear its border areas of terrorist groups, naming both ISIS and Kurdish groups. Turkish towns near Syria came under periodic cross-border shelling by ISIS.
Ankara believes the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG), who are the dominant force within the SDF, have ties to the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated that after ousting ISIS from al-Bab, which was done last week, either Manbij or Raqqa could be the next target of the Euphrates Shield operation.