Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) at an outpost near Manbij in the initial stage of their offensive against the ISIS-held town, Feb. 2016. Photo: AFP
Islamic State (ISIS) militants are completely besieged in the city of Manbij by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and their efforts to break this siege have been successfully foiled by the SDF. The complete liberation of Manbij from the militants appears to be inevitable.
This will be highly beneficial to the security of Turkey which has come under increasing attacks from the militants this year – from ISIS bomb attacks which have killed scores in both Ankara and Istanbul to the ongoing cross-border rocket attacks ISIS have been launching against the Turkish frontier town of Kilis.
While Turkey has long opposed the Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG) crossing westward of their Kobani Canton into the northwestern Syrian frontier Jarablus-Azaz line they have, to date, acquiesced to the crossing of the Kurdish YPG-majority SDF to the west of the Euphrates River, across the Tishrin Dam, last December.
After that initial December crossing former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu claimed only Arab SDF members were present there.
Similarly earlier this month Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he was informed by the United States that the majority of SDF members fighting for Manbij are Arabs. Furthermore the US has reportedly told Ankara that Kurdish YPG members of the SDF will not remain in Manbij after ISIS is expelled from there.
This helps Ankara save face while a multiethnic force established by the Syrian Kurds helps neutralize the ISIS threat to its southeastern frontier regions with Syria. While ISIS will still remain in the Jarablus-Azaz region after an SDF victory in Manbij its forces on the border will be completely cut off from Raqqa and ISIS militants in that province will be unable to reinforce them if the Turks, or Turkish-backed groups in northwestern Syria, advance against them.
The ability of ISIS to reinforce its positions was evidenced just this week when Syrian military and allied militia forces were pushed back by the militants two weeks into their offensive into the Raqqa province – after they approached the key ISIS-held town of Tabqa and were repelled by hundreds of ISIS reinforcements from the city of Raqqa, despite the fact they had Russian air support.
With Manbij under the control of the SDF, ISIS will find it even more difficult to reinforce their militants on the border, increasing the chance of a successful Turkish effort to oust them from that area.
Turkey claims that it frequently shells ISIS positions along its border with artillery guns each time the militants fire rocket projectiles at Kilis. However they have found it difficult to take out mobile ISIS rocket launchers with artillery. Consequently they called on the American-led anti-ISIS coalition to increase the number of air and drones strikes against the group in that border area.
Also on at least one occasion last May Turkish special forces made a brief incursion into northwestern Syria as part of what Ankara described as a “reconnaissance mission,” against ISIS.
Turkey expects the Americans to deploy advanced surface-to-surface High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) which will be able to more accurately target ISIS positions and force that group south from the border, from where they will not be able to hit Turkish territory. While these systems were initially expected to be deployed in May that deployment has been delayed until August.
Pushing the militants back from the border would limit where they could withdraw to and rebound from with Manbij under SDF control. The SDF presence in Manbij therefore benefits Turkey’s security.
The militia forces Ankara is backing in the Syrian border area – who fight under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – have been unable to afflict any substantial defeats on ISIS.
Last April, for example, FSA fighters briefly managed to seize the ISIS-held northwestern town of al-Rai, a key transit route for the group between the Turkish border and ISIS-held parts of Aleppo, only to be forced out of it again mere days later.
Turkey has forcefully prevented YPG fighters in the Afrin Canton from advancing into this region. In February the YPG advanced towards Azaz, which is currently under the control of non-ISIS Islamists, only to be forced back by Turkish artillery fire. More recently ISIS encircled and besieged the nearby town of Marea only to be pushed back by armed fighters from that town.
If ISIS suffers continued setbacks in the Syria’s northwest, after failing to takeover Marea and losing Manbij to the SDF, the threat of terrorist and rocket attacks against Turkey’s southeastern frontier provinces will be lessened and ISIS will be further starved of weapons and fresh recruits – a state of affairs which could help to hasten the group’s ultimate demise.
*Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil.