AMMAN: A controversy is brewing in the northern Syrian city of Manbij following the alleged killing last week of two Arab residents at the hands—one prominent local tribe claims—of Kurdish authorities.
The dispute began last weekend, when Manbij residents reportedly found the mangled, dead bodies of two young Arab men. The men belonged to the al-Boubanna, an influential local tribe, and were reportedly arrested in December by Kurdish-majority Self-Administration security forces for unknown charges, Omar Manbiji, director of a local pro-opposition news page told Syria Direct.
One al-Boubanna tribe member, Manbij convenience store owner Mansour al-Mustafa, said he helped identify the bodies at a nearby hospital over the weekend. He told Syria Direct the bodies “showed signs of torture,” including one with a “decomposing head.” Syria Direct could not independently confirm the alleged injuries.
Two Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) officials who spoke to Syria Direct denied any role in the men’s deaths, adding that investigations were “underway” to locate those responsible.
“Whoever says the two young men were killed at the hands of the SDF is incorrect,” Ghussoun Rajeb, an SDF spokesman, told Syria Direct on Sunday.
The Self-Administration has been in charge of Manbij, 75km northeast of Aleppo city, since August 2016, when the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) seized the city from the Islamic State.
After capturing Manbij, SDF forces established a local military council to rule the city. But Self-Administration governance of the city has reportedly been ridden with tensions between local Arab tribes and Rojava authorities brought in from out of town.
In the latest flare-up of tensions, an online statement released on Friday by the al-Boubanna tribe accused the Self-Administration of “torturing our two young men to death” while in captivity, calling on tribesmen and others in Manbij to shut down their businesses across the city in protest.
In response, dozens of store owners closed their doors starting on Friday. Manbij residents and participants in the strike who shut down their businesses denounced what they called a “crime” at the hands of outsiders.
The strike, which continued until Tuesday, was meant to “announce a clear and frank stance against the killing of innocent detainees,” the al-Boubanna statement read.
“We did this in refusal of the practices of the Kurdish forces,” said Mansour al-Mustafa, who closed down his convenience store in Manbij. He called Self-Administration authorities “oppressive,” and claimed “they aren’t held accountable for the treatment of the citizens who live under their control.”
SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali praised the strike in Manbij as an expression of “democratic culture” under Self-Administration authority, in a statement posted to Facebook on Monday.
“Tip your hat to the people of Manbij and their democratic spirit, wherein both sides have expressed their point of view in a civilized manner,” Bali wrote in the statement.
Manbij Military Council spokesman Shervan Darwish and SDF commanders in Manbij on Monday. Photo courtesy of Mustafa Bali.
Meanwhile, the Self-Administration is staring down another threat to its governance in Manbij. Turkish president Erdogan vowed on Tuesday to “destroy all terror nests” along its border with Syria, “starting with Afrin and Manbij,” state media outlet Anadolu Agency reported. Afrin is a zone of Self-Administration territory west of Manbij.
Ankara views the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which make up a large portion of the SDF’s forces, as a terrorist organization connected with the Kurdish PKK group waging a decade’s long insurgency within Turkey.
On the ground in Manbij, Arab tribal leaders pressured the Self-Administration in recent months to halt forced conscription of men into the SDF. The governing body of Rojava, the Kurdish-majority territories in Syria’s north, reserves the right to conscript able-bodied men above the age of 18 for nine months of “self-defense duty.” The law applies to all Syrian and foreign nationals residing in Self-Administration-run areas, Kurdish and Arab alike, according to the Legislative Assembly’s website.
But for members of Manbij’s Arab population, fighting alongside Kurdish forces could mean clashing with Turkish-backed Arab forces roughly a dozen kilometers north of Manbij, in an area bound by deep-rooted tribal ties.
“Tribalism is strong [in Manbij],” one resident, who was detained for SDF military service, told Syria Direct in November.
Tribal leaders negotiated in early November with local Self-Administration authorities to make military service voluntary. “The SDF can’t make the tribes bow down to them,” the former detainee said.
On Monday, convenience store owner al-Mustafa said all he felt was disappointment with the administration of the city, as he kept his own store shut as a part of the strike against the alleged double killing.
“When the city was liberated from Daesh [the Islamic State], we expected the situation to improve, that we would go back to living our normal lives,” he told Syria Direct. “But the authorities are oppressive, and they aren’t held accountable for the civilians in their territory.”