Women burn burkas as Islamic State flee city of Manbij

Turkey blocks efforts of largely Kurdish Democratic Forces to capture border town


Celebrations have erupted in the strategic Syrian city of Manbij following the rout of Islamic State fighters by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Survivors of the 2½-year Islamic State occupation poured into the streets to greet Kurdish and Arab tribal fighters who had besieged the city since mid-May.

Men shaved their beards. Women burned cloaks, burkas and veils and left homes to which they had been confined by the radicals.

Televised images of jubilation in Manbij were a major propaganda victory for the anti-Islamic State forces, marked an end to religio-social coercion, and dealt a serious blow to the prestige of the group and to the morale of its fighters. Some have reportedly deserted to al-Qaeda’s former affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which has benefited from Islamic State’s recent defeats.

The Islamist group’s combatants, accompanied by 2,000 civilian human shields, drove out of Manbij, 40km south of the Turkish border, in 500 vehicles, making for the city of Jarablus located on Turkey’s frontier. The hostages were freed once the jihadis neared their destination.

Strategic position

Captured by Islamic State, also known as Isis, in early 2014, Jarablus has been a key crossing point for men, money and guns destined to travel the “corridor” through Manbij to the group’s headquarters at Raqqa. By taking Manbij, the Democratic Forces could cut off the main supply route providing Raqqa with food, medicine and fuel as well as the means to wage war.

Efforts by the Democratic Forces to seize Jarablus have been obstructed by Turkey, which has threatened to attack the forces’ main component, Kurdish People’s Protection Units, an offshoot of the insurgent Turkish Kurdish Workers’ Party fighting the Turkish government.

Turkey did its utmost to hamper Kurdish defence of the Isis-besieged frontier village of Kobane in 2014-15. Perhaps, since Manbij is some distance from the border, Turkey did not interfere. Respecting Turkish sensitivities, the US and its allies generally refer to the Democratic Forces as “Arab and Kurdish”, although Kurds form the main component.

It remains to be seen if Turkey, which is embroiled in domestic difficulties following a failed coup in July, would attempt to halt a march on Jarablus, particularly after it agreed with Moscow to join the battle against Islamic State, seen by both Russia and the US as the main threat to stability in the Middle East.

The US expects the Democratic Forces to take part in the battle for Raqqa, which needs to be co-ordinated with the Iraqi campaign to retake Mosul from Islamic State.

Coinciding with the fall of Manbij, long-range Tupolev bombers took off from a Russian airfield and, accompanied by fighters based near Latakia in Syria, destroyed Islamic State command centres, arsenals and armoured vehicles outside the city of Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria, a stronghold of the terrorist group.

The city is divided between Islamic State- and government-held quarters while the jihadis control most of the oil-rich Deir al-Zor province, located on the border with Iraq.

Russian-supported government forces continue to battle insurgents in the city of Aleppo, where 51 people were reported killed in latest exchanges between the sides.

Russian war planes have intensified attacks on targets in Idlib province controlled by a jihadi coalition dubbed Jaish al-Fatah, or Army of Conquest, which is dominated by the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and its allies.

Aleppo siege

This coalition mounted the recent offensive to break the siege of eastern quarters of Aleppo imposed by the Syrian army, Russia, and partners. While they broke through the defences of the pro-government forces and reached eastern Aleppo, the siege was reimposed and some 250,000 civilians have little food and medicine.

Meanwhile, a 10-year-old girl, Gina Quwayder, who was shot in the leg by a pro-government sniper, was evacuated by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent from the besieged southwestern Syrian town of Madaya and taken to hospital in Damascus for treatment after intervention by Amnesty International. The girl, whose condition is stable, was reported to suffer “almost constant, excruciating pain”.

Her evacuation followed the transfer to the Damascus children’s hospital for urgent surgery of Moaz and Nahwaz, conjoined twins born in the Eastern Ghouta, held by the Saudi-sponsored Jaish al-Islam, or Army of Islam. The boys, joined at the chest, were born in late July.

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