Civilians fleeing Manbij arrive at safety outside of the city. Photo: Delil Souleiman/AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region—Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Manbij made a major advance in the city on Sunday, capturing an Islamic State (ISIS) headquarters and a “significant” amount of territory, the United States military reported on Tuesday.
“The Da’esh [ISIS] headquarters, located in a hospital, was being used as a command center and logistics hub,” reads a statement issued by US Central Command. “The SAC [Syrian Arab Coalition] also seized a significant amount of the city during the operation, which provided civilians the opportunity to escape.”
The SDF, a coalition of forces in northern Syria dominated by the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), are engaged in an offensive to liberate the city of Manbij.
“Da’esh continues to fight hard within the center of Manbij and has mounted local counterattacks against SAC forces, but the SAC is maintaining their momentum with support from Coalition strikes,” the US Central Command statement continues, noting that the coalition has carried out more than 450 airstrikes on the city and regions.
The UK-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that at least 20 civilians were killed in coalition airstrikes on Manbij on Monday, bringing the total civilian deaths due to airstrikes on the city and regions to more than 100 since the operation was launched at the end of May.
ISIS militants have prevented civilians from leaving the city and used some as human shields, increasing the risk of casualties in airstrikes.
The SDF have Manbij surrounded and are making steady progress into the city but a US military spokesperson warned that the liberation of the full city will be slow. “The operation will still take time due to huge number of explosives,” Air Force Col. Pat Ryder told reporters, adding that SDF forces faced “countless snipers and explosives belts.”
ISIS militants have planted a high number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), as many as 600 in some small areas.
“The battle to retake Manbij has become an urban fight,” he said. “And similar to other urban fights such as those in Kobane and Ramadi, the battle for Manbij will be conducted in a slow place to liberate the city and its people.”
“It will take time, it will not be easy, and we are confident that the SDF will eventually take back the city and seize this key terrain from ISIL [ISIS].”
Manbij is strategically located 40 kilometres south of the Turkey-Syria border. It is hoped that by retaking the area from ISIS, the group will be cut off from supply routes through Turkey.
The coalition is also gaining valuable information about the terrorist group’s operations and global reach. SDF forces have discovered more than 10,000 documents and 4.5 terabytes of data in Manbij. The documents include information on hundreds of foreign fighters from more than 40 different countries, Ryder confirmed last week.
Kurdish forces participating in the operation also hope that it will bring the Kurds closer to connecting their cantons of Kobane, east of the Euphrates, and Efrin to the west of the Manbij pocket.