Manbij: Syria’s Modern Day “Danzig”

Establishing safe zones and no-fly zones was among the very first critical demands made with respect to the Syria crisis, yet the then United States administration led by former President Barrack Obama– keen on rehabilitating its rival Iran and turning it into a reliable West ally in the regional game of politics– turned down those requests time and time again.

Despite the atrocities of war and displacement being loud and blatant, justifications on US idleness were plainly obstinate.

The US claimed that safe zones were a costly scenario, both in terms of policy, funding and military. More so, it could have entailed the deployment of troops to Syria at a time they were quite busy pulling troops out of Iraq.

At that time, none reflected on the very short distance separating Turkey’s Incirlik air base and the proposed safe zone. Located in the Incirlik quarter of the city of Adana, and controlled by the Turkish and US air forces, the base is nestled right by Syria borders.

None questioned the perpetual US refusal since Ankara (despite its opinion about the invasion of Iraq) was still ready to put Incirlik air base under international forces assigned to the maintenance and protection of the safe zones.

In 2015, it was confirmed that the Turkish Government would allow USAF UAVs and USAF combat planes to fly combat sorties against ISIS in Syria out of Incirlik Air base.

Afterwards, both Russian and Iranian interferences in Syria escalated. Tehran and Moscow did not consider the expenses of maintaining these safe zones to be too high, despite the US doing so.

Anyways, let bygones be bygones. It was made clearer as idleness persevered against the prohibited usage of chemical weapons and barrel bombs by the Syrian regime that forced the brutal displacement of masses and demographic sorting.

Yet with the interference of Russia, the Syrian regime stood to gain much from that, for example:

-Firstly, reclaiming strategic Aleppo.

-Secondly–after the downing of the Russian Sukhoi aircraft near the Syria-Turkey border in November 2015 – Turkey was successfully convinced that the West would not rush to their aid should any confrontation arise with Russia.

Moreover, Ankara has discovered (although untimely) that Washington does not really take into consideration “the sovereignty and unity of Turkish lands”. Seeing that US military support was presented to Kurdish forces in Syria—which Turkey considers a threat. US aid was reasoned as a counterterrorism effort against ISIS.

The US rashly praised efforts of the Kurdish militias labeling them, and I quote, “phenomenal accomplishments,” especially in the Ein Al-Arab battles against ISIS. Even though extensive air support covered Kurdish-led operations in Syria.

Had US air support been provided to Syrian rebels, who only received ridicule from the Obama administration, Syria might have not become the tragedy it is today.

A few months ago, the city of Al-bab located in Aleppo could have turned into the Syrian rebels’ modern day “Stalingrad”.

Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel forces, backed by Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield military operation, made substantial advances towards the strategic town of al-Bab, driving ISIS militants out of their stronghold.

Before that, the terrorist group had also lost substantial territory to FSA and Turkish combined efforts, such as the border city of Jarablus. Notably, ISIS suffered the loss of Manbij to the Kurdish militias supported by the US.

It is worth mentioning that the battle of al-Bab stretched on for quite some time, as the contentious arena was a crossway for several operations staged by multilateral forces and each based on different agendas.

As developments unfolded, Turkish forces and their Syrian allies won over al-Bab. However, the second stage of Operation Euphrates Shield is far from accomplished, particularly amidst regional and international disarray.

Ankara, naturally, announced its plans on not only establishing a “safe zone” between the western city of Aazaz and Euphrates-neighboring Jarablus, but also advancing further to include Manbij. Thereon Turkish forces will continue pushing southeast towards Raqqa. Yet this stance translates into a direct confrontation with US-backed Kurdish forces.

On the other hand, Kurdish militias had their image ‘reinvented’ by the US and given an attractive name, “the Syrian Democratic Forces.”

More so, many Arab tribes with different religious and racial backgrounds had joined the embellished SDF. These forces later carried their own self-styled “nationalist” agenda, at which they will stop at nothing to fulfill.

When zooming in on Raqqa, ISIS’ de facto capital to their self-proclaimed caliphate, many serious altercations surface, outlining the future fallout of any entity (or entities) able to survive on Syrian lands.

The city of Manbij is today a crossroad for these fallouts, and from it comes the greater contradictions involved in determining future events. Possibly, even beyond Syria itself.

Manbij has turned into what seems like semi-autonomous city-state , Danzig (or the polish city Gdansk) whose strategic location, situated by the Baltic Sea, was a key reason behind it becoming a German base in World War I.

Danzig had an early history of independence. It was a leading player in the Prussian Confederation directed against the Teutonic Monastic State of Prussia. This city sparked many wars and battles.

Moreover, out of this city came Lich Walesa and the Solidarity Labour Union that rose up against the communist rule which almost caused a 3rd world war before the fall of the Soviet Union. Danzig was a meeting point and a place of severe conflict between Prussia, Poland and Russia, and until now, it is still a part of eastern Prussia.

Similarly, Manbij finds at a crossroad of conflicts emerging between Kurds, Arabs, and Turks.

Manbij today pays the steep price of US ambiguity and Russian aggression in Syria. It also accounts for the opportunistic greed of some Kurdish groups exploiting a dismantled Syria. Manbij also stands to be affected by the fluctuating foreign policy adopted by Iran and Turkey.

As Ankara defends the ongoing expansion of its military offensive in Syria– involving Raqqa (a Kurd-free zone)– Washington also stands idle against escalating demographic tensions. The matter of the fact is that the Kurdish agenda in northern Syria is now on pause.

Evidently, and with US say, Manbij is “Syria’s Danzig”…

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with the newspaper since 1978.

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