5 min read  | Aleppo, Interviews, Politics

FSA ‘closing in’ on Manbij as Islamic State in retreat


February 12, 2015

February 12, 2015

Manbij was one of the first major cities “liberated” from the regime in northern Syria early in the revolution.

Control of the city, which lies about 40km northwest of Aleppo city, was gradually ceded to Islamist fighters, who later pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, then known as ISIS, in 2013.

Since then, the Islamic State has ruled the Manbij, which sits on the supply road between its de facto capital in A-Raqqa and Aleppo.

Initially, the Islamic State was welcomed by Manbij residents, who benefited from IS’s practices of seizing nearby government flour mills and distributing bread to the people.

But IS’s harsh punitive tactics and violent behavior, however, reportedly wore on civilians.

Earlier this week, Islamic State fighters reportedly withdrew from parts of the city in light of the Kurdish YPG and Free Syrian Army advances in the nearby Kobani area, according to Lebanese daily A-Nahar.

“The FSA is about 35 kilometers from the city,” says Munther a-Salal, 28-year old commander in a local FSA-affiliated brigade.

Perhaps reading the writing on the wall, IS fighters are booby-trapping buildings and homes in Manbij, as they did before leaving Kobani last month.

Despite its tight control over Manbij, a-Salal tells Syria Direct’s Moatassim Jamal, the group remains secretive and inscrutable.

“IS convoys come and install their military equipment…and then uninstall it and move. This is their strategy and we can’t guess what they will do.”

Q: Why is IS retreating at this time? Was there internal disagreement in the organization or fear of the FSA advancing?

We don’t deny that some known IS known have fled and that IS has retreated. However, it is not on the level of what the media is reporting in terms of big waves of retreating and fleeing.

The news in the media is not true: What is happening among IS is simply a rearrangement of their lines and tactics. IS fighters move between places, they have many convoys moving between Manbij and Al-Bab city. They also move from Al-Bab to the town of Jarablus, then to Al-Raya, a town northeast of Aleppo. IS has set up a group of moving convoys they use to install their military equipment and weapons somewhere, before uninstalling it and moving elsewhere.

The reason for the real fear and confusion among IS ranks is that the FSA is closing in on Manbij city. The FSA is about 35 kilometers from the city and continues advance towards the city.

In addition, IS losses in Kobani, whether in terms of manpower or equipment, caused fear among its fighters. That makes some of them consider fleeing, while others have already fled because of their concerns.

Manbij234 FSA and YPG capture a Manbij IS leader. Photo courtesy of Manbij Mubashar.

Q: We heard that the Muhajireen booby-trap their houses when they leave them. Is that true? Is this the first time they have done this?

In general, IS fighters booby-trap their homes when they leave or retreat from any place. It is not only the Muhajirin who do so, it is the way of IS everywhere. They also booby-trap the sites near the front lines with the FSA in case the FSA takes over the area.

This is not the first time they have done this, as they also booby-trapped the houses in Kobani when they retreated.

Q: Does IS’s retreat mean that it has decided to give Manbij to the FSA?

Until this moment, it is unclear whether IS is giving Manbij to the FSA or not. But these [booby-trapped houses] are simple tactics in case it loses the city.

If the FSA can take Manbij, it will damage IS because doing so will cut IS’s support line through Manbij River. In addition, Manbij is one the biggest cities in Aleppo province. Before the revolution, the area had a population of 600,000 and since the revolution, it has stretched to 1 million because of the arrival of displaced people.

Moreover the city and its rural areas are very rich with resources, such as wheat and water, and there are electricity plants. Because of that, IS considers it a rich and easy area to live in.

Q: Can you tell us about the Muhajireen [what they call non-Syrian fighters] and the Ansar [Syrian fighters] of IS in Manbij? Who are they?

There are many foreign fighters in Manbij; they call the city Little London because of so many British fighters. There is also a large number of Chechens, Russians, Germans, French, Moroccans and Egyptians.

The other members are residents of the city that have pledged allegiance to IS, whether in a military capacity or for other services. You can’t distinguish the Ansar from the Muhajirin now, as they all speak formal Arabic.

The Ansar are a mixture of three groups:

The first group are those who oppose the Free Syrian Army and the [affiliated] Revolutionary Council. These people did not initially participate in the revolution. Later, they wanted to join the revolution so they joined IS; we call them profiteers. There are only a few, and they are well-known to us, like Mohammed al-Basher, a leader in IS. He was a member of the Revolutionary Council [FSA], but we dismiss him as we know that he did not give any effort to the revolution.

The second group are the mercenaries: people who joined IS because of a lack of money and the high taxes IS levies on civilians. IS enforced laws that make life more difficult for people, causing unemployment amongst them. Afterwards, they had no option except joining IS.

The third group are those who seek power and dominance, such as tribal leaders and the strict religious men. They are already rich, but they welcomed IS from the beginning. Before the revolution most of them were in the Syrian Parliament. Some young men joined IS to have more sway in their families.

Q: Do you think that the Ansar will keep their alliance to IS after the retreat of the Muhajireen?

I think that the Ansar will follow IS wherever it goes and they will maintain their loyalty to IS, but we can’t entirely be sure. But they basically know that they are considered IS members and they know that will receive the treatment of IS if rebels take over the city.

When we fight IS, we don’t distinguish between the Muhajireen or the Ansar as they are all IS members.

Q: What do you think IS’s next movements will be in northern Aleppo province?

No one knows about their movements. For example, the IS convoys will come and install their military equipment. The next day, they uninstall it and move. This is their strategy and we can’t guess what they will do.

By the time of all of our forces gather in northern Aleppo province, the battle will start and we will announce battle against IS for northern Aleppo province. That will be in the next few days.

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