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Beyond conscription: What does Manbij’s unrest reveal about SDF rule in northeast Syria?

Although the conscription policy imposed by the SDF in areas of its control was the direct incentive of protests in Syria’s northern city of Manbij last week, public discontent can be traced back to more deeply rooted drivers that threaten the northeast in general.  

8 June 2021

AMMAN — Following two days of popular protests, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) -affiliated Manbij Military Council reached an agreement on Wednesday with the city’s notables and tribal elders to suspend the application of the conscription law that was the direct cause for the outbreak of demonstrations.

Residents of Manbij and surrounding villages organized protests, accompanied by a general strike, on May 31 in refusal of the conscription policy imposed by the SDF in areas of its control under the Self-Defense Law. The SDF killed two demonstrators in the village of al-Hadhoud, five kilometers east of Manbij, leading protests to continue until Tuesday evening, despite a 48-hour curfew imposed by the SDF starting on June 1, resulting in the killing of three more demonstrators. 

Despite the relative calm in Manbij following the signing of Wednesday’s agreement, this does not necessarily mean the crisis has been settled, according to political analyst Kahtan al-Sharki. Originally from Manbij but currently based in Turkey, al-Sharki cited the “lack of seriousness on the part of the SDF in appeasement and its continuing violations against civilians.”

SDF claims innocence

The Democratic Civil Administration of Manbij and its Countryside, which is part of the SDF-affiliated Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES), placed responsibility for the killing and injury of demonstrators in al-Hadhoud on Assad regime forces who passed through the village.

On the contrary, local sources that spoke to Syria Direct stressed that the gunfire on demonstrators came from SDF forces. According to a resident of al-Hadhoud, who asked not to be named for security reasons, “the SDF was behind the direct firing upon peaceful protesters.” 

The provisions in Wednesday’s agreement support this account. Per the agreement, the SDF-affiliated Manbij Military Council pledged to investigate the shootings and hold those involved accountable. It also promised to release those detained in the wake of the protests over the previous two days. 

Through the agreement, the SDF seeks to “contain the protests, afraid they could evolve and worried for their project in a tribal region,” Abdulkarim al-Jasem, originally from Manbij but currently living in Turkey, told Syria Direct

Beyond conscription

Since mid-May, villages and towns in the countryside of Hasakah and Deir e-Zor provinces have seen waves of protests against the AANES after it issued a decision to raise fuel prices in the region. 

Similar to what took place in Manbij last week, the SDF responded by firing on protesters, resulting in many deaths. The AANES then tried to calm the situation for fear of it evolving into a crisis. 

Although conscription “sparked the protests in Manbij, their cause goes beyond [that],” according to Syrian writer Hassan al-Naifi. 

“The SDF’s military, security and economic policies in the area, as well as handing the reins of [the area’] administration to unqualified people belonging to the [Turkish] Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK], such as the person called Jahid, an Iranian Kurd, caused this tension,” al-Naifi told Syria Direct.  

Suleiman al-Ali, a trader in Manbij, agreed that the current popular unrest has economic roots. Residents of Manbij and other AANES areas are suffering “economic distress” from the increase in prices of some essential goods, he told Syria Direct. “The price of a ton of cement in AANES areas is $160, compared with $57 in Peace Spring regions [controlled by the Turkish-supported Syrian National Army (SNA) in northeast Syria].”

This does not negate the discontent of Manbij residents towards the imposition of conscription, as well as the new policy adopted by the SDF to draft those wanted for service. “Instead of detaining people wanted for conscription while they are going through SDF checkpoints, the SDF has raided their homes, which people consider a violation of the sanctity of their homes,” Manbij resident Khalil al-Ali (a pseudonym) told Syria Direct.

Fear for the strategic city

With the outbreak of protests in Arab-majority Manbij, Syrian citizens, especially in opposition-held areas of the country’s northwest, expressed solidarity with the city’s residents against SDF violations. 

The Democratic Civil Administration in Manbij sensed the danger of protests being exploited to achieve the goals of other parties, such as Turkey, especially since the latter stressed on more than one occasion that the SDF needed to leave the city. This included Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s demand, in October 2019, that Manbij be turned over “to its owners.”

In this context, a source in the Manbij Military Council told Syria Direct, on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, that the SDF worries “any escalation could open space for external parties to capitalize on the current situation.” He pointed out that “the Russians and Turks have tried for years to find a foothold in Manbij.”

The Assad regime is also trying to use the protests to its advantage through figures close to it, local sources told Syria Direct. Activists from Manbij have expressed their worry that the SDF will hand the area over to the regime against the backdrop of protests. 

Aside from the historical commercial importance of Manbij due to its location along the Hasakah-Aleppo-Latakia international highway, known as the M4, it is also a transport hub for areas east and west of the Euphrates River through the Qaraqouzaq Bridge. The city is currently a trade corridor between three conflicting forces in northeastern Syria: the SDF, the Turkish-backed SNA and the Assad regime and its allies.

Manbij is also a commercial outlet for the SDF with the Assad regime through the Tayhah crossing. The city has two trade crossings, the Aoun al-Dadat and Umm Jaloud crossings, connecting SDF areas with Turkish-backed opposition areas. This increases the economic importance of Manbij for the SDF, driving it to hold on to it. 

But this importance does not reflect on the city’s residents, according to Suleiman al-Ali. “The imposition of large tariffs has left many traders in the area disinclined to engage in commerce because it is not economically viable,” he explained, “causing a large recession.”

A 2018 agreement signed between the United States and Turkey regarding Manbij could be a way out for the region’s people, al-Sharki said. The deal stipulated the exit of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the largest military component of the SDF, from the region, as well as the installation of a new administration following the control of Turkish and American forces over the area. The agreement, al-Sharki added, represents “the best way to deescalate the situation in the region” and, more importantly, “blocks the road for any attempts for the regime or Russian forces to enter Manbij.”


This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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