Sleeper cells, abandoned US bases, Russian military police in Syria's Manbij

Sputnik News Agency
Manbij, Syria Updated: Oct 25, 2019, 11:47 AM(IST)

File photo: Manbij, Syria. Photograph:( AFP )

Story highlights

Manbij is a strategic city. Before the war hit the country in 2011, the authorities mulled the possibility of creating a new province 'Reef Aleppo,' with the administrative centre in Manbij.

For what is now nearly two weeks, Syrian military and Kurdish fighters have been jointly controlling Manbij, the northern city near the border with Turkey that used to host three US military bases before the hasty American troop withdrawal.

Despite permission to enter the city, our vehicle’s driver is told to stop on a roadside and wait.

Strategic city

The Syrian troops crossed into Manbij earlier in October in accordance with the agreements between Damascus and the Kurdish administration. The decision was made very timely – after Ankara launched its offensive against Kurdish militia in northern Syria and pro-Turkish militant groups moved close to the suburbs of Manbij from the north and northwest. Local civilians were all set to flee in the fear of the looming assault.

The picture, however, changed overnight after Syrian heavy military equipment was deployed to the area and national flags were flown at the frontline.

Manbij is a strategic city. Before the war hit the country in 2011, the authorities mulled the possibility of creating a new province "Reef Aleppo," with the administrative centre in Manbij.

Its population today, according to various estimates, is from 600,000 to 800,000 people, coupled with the inhabitants of nearby villages.

The checkpoint at the city’s entrance is located on the M4 highway. Turkey aims to clear the 30-kilometre (18-mile) zone up to the M4 highway, which runs from Aleppo toward the Iraqi border.

Small columns of the Syrian military pass by from time to time.

"They are going to the north, toward Kobane, to strengthen their positions on the border. The army is deploying armoured vehicles and artillery. For the first time since the [2011] events hit this part of the country, the population again sees regular troops back," a Syrian reporter told a Sputnik correspondent.

Patchwork' Kurdish movement

Manbij clearly illustrates how Kurdish militias are fragmented, both here and in the entire northeast of Syria. The core is represented by the Self-Defense Forces. The Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces and guerrilla groups of the People's Protection Units (YPG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) are also present here.

"There is no central authority uniting all the formations. They coordinate among themselves. But each militia has their own bosses," a Kurdish guide, Abdi, explained.

The rest of the Manbij population is also rather heterogeneous. A small group of residents is considered a vanguard of sleeper cells of radical groups, including the Islamic State terrorist organization (banned in Russia).

"They represent a small part of the population. But they're dangerous," Abdi pointed out.

The first impression upon arriving in Manbij is that it is an absolutely peaceful city with rather well-functioning municipal services. Its streets are cleaner than in some areas of Aleppo. Many shops are open, with "cafe" signboards also seen across the city.

Residents stare at an unknown column of vehicles, with some of them waving their hands and the others just warily peering into vehicles’ windows.

Manbij is a largely Arab city. Kurds are a minority here; their number has, however, increased with the arrival of refugees from the area of the Turkish military operation. A third of the population supports the Kurdish self-rule and feels rather comfortable.

"The thing is that these are the people who are afraid that they will be enlisted in the army, who once broke the law and fled here from the authorities or for other reasons. It is noteworthy that for years people were told that the authorities would come and start arresting and robbing everyone. The military came, so did patrols of the Russian military police, and people are now breathing a sigh of relief because they have realized that with the arrival of the authorities and army, it is getting only better," Abdi noted.

US presence

The United States used to have three military bases in Manbij, retaining military presence here for a few years. Two bases were stationed on the M4 highway, while another one was in the settlement of Dadat, located to the west of the city.

"With their presence, people felt neither good nor bad. They were arrogant. They didn't communicate with anyone and didn't help in any way. Last year, when they were still here, terrorist sleeper cells felt calmer. Their [US] soldiers were blown up by a suicide attacker in a restaurant last year when contrary to our [Kurdish] recommendations, they decided to eat out in the city," Abdi said, pointing to the street where the building is located.

Leaving Manbij toward the Euphrates, one can see a neat military cemetery, where soldiers who had been killed while liberating the city from IS terrorists, were buried.

"It's like a reminder to the Kurds about the price they have had to pay for freedom," Abdi explained.

Russia's security guarantees

At the talks in Sochi, presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan struck a memorandum on the northeast of Syria. Now, the Russian military police are patrolling Manbij, Kobane and the border area.

"You should have seen how people reacted to the appearance of a Russian military police column in Manbij. Still, the majority respects and welcomes the Russians and the Syrian army. People gathered in a large crowd, waving hands and shouting slogans in support of the army and the Russians. That is very telling. They sent each other videos from their phones to prove that what has happened was not a fiction," the Kurdish guide said.

The same picture was in place when the Russian military police entered Kobane.

Shelling from the Turkish side did not resume on Wednesday. The people who fled to Manbij have started returning to their villages.

In the coming days, the number of patrols and the presence of Syrian border guards will increase in the area. Perhaps, a few years later, the Syrian authorities will return to the idea of creating a new province with the centre in Manbij.

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