Manbij residents in limbo amid US withdrawal uncertainty

Anchal Vohra 05 Jan 2019
Residents in the Kurdish-controlled city fear the planned US withdrawal from Syria will leave a security vacuum.

When Jaseem heard President Donald Trump decided to pull US troops out of Syria, he began planning his escape from the northern city of Manbij.
In the days following Trump’s announcement, both the Syrian government and Turkey moved to fill what they assumed would be a vacuum, starting in Manbij. The United States’s military presence guaranteed Kurdish rule in the city since 2016.
Jaseem, whose name has been changed for security reasons, is an ethnic Arab – like most Manbij residents – but he said he preferred rule by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to either the Syrian government or Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army militias, such as those ruling the rebel enclave of Idlib.
“The SDF made us feel safe,” the 40-year old told Al Jazeera. “The Syrian government thinks we are all traitors and may arrest us, and we cannot go to Idlib because every day there are explosions and kidnappings there.”
Trump’s decision last month was an unexpected boon, on the surface, for both the Syrian government and Turkey. The SDF controls not only Manbij but most of Syria east of the Euphrates, where the US has guaranteed SDF rule.
The Syrian government, however, wants to retake all of the country, while Turkey regards the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which dominates the SDF, as a “terrorist” entity that is part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Ankara already launched one bloody battle against the YPG in the town of Afrin last February.
Abandoning the Kurds?
Trump subsequently suggested the withdrawal of troops would be “slow” and told the Republican Senator Lindsey Graham he would not abandon the US’s local allies, or leave eastern Syria open to Iranian influence.
“ISIS is mostly gone, we’re slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families, while at the same time, fighting ISIS remnants,” Trump tweeted, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIL.
The New York Times reported from Washington that Trump had extended the deadline for the troops’ return from 30 days to four months. But a day after the report, Trump denied fixing any timeline for the withdrawal, merely emphasizing his intentions. He said, “We are getting out of Syria.”
Jaseem, who has four daughters, said he was relieved at the change. He said he fears arrest by the Syrian regime, or at least conscription into the army, if it takes over Manbij.
“I cannot tell you how safe we feel with the Americans present,” said Jaseem. “The American presence protects us from both the Syrian government and Turkey.”
But he is still uncertain how long his family will be safe for and where their lives are heading next, torn between staying put or leaving the city.
Change America’s mind?
Mohammad, a Kurdish activist in Manbij, told Al Jazeera Trump’s latest comments provided some temporary relief.
“It is too early to understand what it means,” said Mohammad, requesting only his first name be used. “We are not sure if the pullout will be delayed, but I know that Kurdish fighters are working very hard to change America’s mind.”
Former US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and former Special Envoy to Counter ISIL Brett McGurk both resigned in opposition to Trump’s troop withdrawal decision.
At one stage of Syria’s war, the YPG pursued the establishment of autonomous self-rule across the vast swath of territory it carved out along the Turkish border, running from the Iraqi border in the northeast, through Kobane to Afrin in the northwest.
That dream was quashed by the loss of Afrin, but the Kurds remain hopeful of setting up some form of autonomous rule in the territory they continue to hold.
The American presence gave them a sizable bargaining chip in the final settlement of the conflict. The slower the US pullout, the more time the Kurds will have to work on a deal.
Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the YPG did not have to evacuate from Manbij – as Turkey demands – if it played its cards right.
“I do not think they have to withdraw, but rather accept nominal regime return while negotiations continue over more tangible things like political and military control,” he said.
On January 2, the Syrian government said at least 400 Kurdish fighters left Manbij, even as locals on the ground told Al Jazeera many are still remaining as a part of the Manbij Military council. Turkey has not yet responded to Syria’s assertion.
Russia will be a key player, particularly if the US decides not to intervene further. It retains strong influence over both Turkey and Damascus, as the regime’s guarantor.
Fawzia Yousif, a member of the Kurds’ autonomous administration in Syria’s northeast, said the delay in the US withdrawing troops could give the Kurds more time to get better terms in a final understanding with the Syrian government.
“If the pullout delay takes place, it would have a positive impact on the war on ISIS, which is still going on in Deir Az Zor,” she said. “It would also have an impact on the political process and the upcoming talks in Geneva.”
‘Bad choices’
The Trump administration can still apply pressure on the Syrian government through the decisions it takes as it prepares an exit.
The military commanders of the Pentagon, caught off-guard by Trump’s decision, are preparing a list of recommendations for the troops’ withdrawal. They may suggest retaining some American presence to maintain the series of air bases the US has built across the northeast, and leave the Kurds with the weapons with which they were provided to fight ISIL.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was unlikely to give the Kurds complete autonomy, it might be open to some cultural concessions.
“For Kurds, there are bad choices all around,” he said. “But now, the Syrian government is entering America’s shoes. The Kurds may not be happy with this but that’s what they are likely to get.”
Landis said the people of Manbij had “kept their heads down” and refrained from expressing outright loyalty to either side in the war. They might now be better off sticking to the same playbook.
Jaseem said the takeover of Manbij, first by the Free Syrian Army in 2012, and then ISIL in 2014, had left residents scarred. “We are tired of war. We just do not want more war.”