AMMAN: Tens of thousands of residents of Aleppo province’s second-biggest city and its countryside are on the run, fleeing battles between the Islamic State and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces that one resident tells Syria Direct are leaving civilians “between the hammer and the anvil.”
Some Manbij city residents are fleeing to the countryside, “while others are still stuck inside,” Adnan al-Hussein, a journalist living in Turkey who is originally from the Manbij countryside told Syria Direct on Monday.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—a US-backed, multi-ethnic alliance fighting the Islamic State in northern Syria—launched an offensive to take Manbij from the Islamic State last week.
Since then, the SDF—supported by US-led international coalition airstrikes—has taken control of dozens of villages and advanced from their base east, in Kurdish-held territory, to within 5km of Manbij, a waystation on IS supply lines heading south from Turkey towards areas of their control in northern and eastern Syria. The city sits 30km south of the Turkish border, and 100km northeast of Aleppo city.
Manbij, once home to Arabs, Kurds, and Circassians and relatively more liberal than other towns in the Aleppo countryside, fell to the Islamic State in early 2014.
The SDF has now partially surrounded Manbij—home to an estimated 65,000 people—and is advancing from the north, south and east. The US-backed forces have already cut off two supply roads, one running north from Manbij to Jarablus and one southeast to Raqqa.
As many as 20,000 Manbij-area residents have been displaced so far “as a result of rapid gains and intensified aerial activity,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported on Sunday, adding that 8,000 people have fled Manbij city alone.
Looking towards Manbij, in the hazy distance from SDF positions in its countryside on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Manbij Coordination.
Another 216,000 people in and around Manbij are at risk of being uprooted as fighting continues, reported the OCHA.
“Most of the civilians [who have fled] are squatting in the fields, living in tents,” Abu Omar, who lives in an IS-held area east of Manbij city, told Syria Direct on Monday.
Originally from a village west of Manbij, Abu Omar and his family of 10 have already been displaced twice in the past by coalition bombings and regime forces. Abu Omar believes they will need to run again in the coming days.
“We are east of Manbij city now, and the SDF is very close,” Abu Omar told Syria Direct. “We have to flee once more into the unknown.”
According to OCHA, some of the displaced so far have fled north, towards the IS-held town of Jarablus on the closed Turkish border, while others moved southwards to IS-held villages along the Euphrates River. Some are trying to travel west, out of IS territories and into rebel-held north Aleppo.
“IS forbids residents of its areas from fleeing outside its territories,” said Abu Omar.
“A few residents are fleeing by smuggling,” he said, “walking for hours on secret, dangerous roads to get to opposition areas, but many of them have been caught.”
“We’re looking for any way to escape from IS to opposition areas,” he said.
Civilian residents of IS-held northeastern Aleppo are not only facing displacement and violence, says Abu Omar, but also “obscenely high prices and severe poverty.”
A fuel crisis in northern Aleppo earlier this year paralyzed the fuel-for-diesel trade routes by which oil from IS-held territory travels to opposition- and Kurdish-held areas in exchange for food.
“Prices went up by 200 percent,” said Abu Omar. “Six loaves of bread cost SP200 (approx. $0.91) and a bag of sugar has reached SP50,000 (approx. $227).”
Some of the people displaced from Manbij “don’t have money to buy a tent because they’ve sold everything they own to get enough to eat,” said Abu Omar. “My family’s even sold the furniture from our house.”
“Our situation is going from bad to worse,” said Abu Omar. “Unfortunately, we’re the victims of these conflicts.”
‘Between the hammer and the anvil’
As SDF forces sweep through Manbij’s olive grove-dotted countryside, the fear of IS infiltrators in villages they capture means the US-backed forces are preventing some residents from returning for now, fueling a pre-existing mistrust.
“The SDF is preventing residents from returning because there are a lot of young men there,” Suzdar Ismail, a citizen journalist currently embedded with the SDF in the Aleppo countryside told Syria Direct on Monday, referring to one village near Manbij. The SDF is “worried about betrayal, afraid that any of them could belong to IS.”
Residents “will be allowed to return after Manbij city is liberated” by the SDF, said Ismail.
SDF spokesman Major Talal Silo has stated that any displacement as a result of the Manbij battles would be temporary and that residents will be allowed to return to their homes, Hawar news agency reported on Tuesday.
Some Manbij residents say the SDF is assuming they support the Islamic State and are treating them as such.
“People are caught between the hammer and the anvil,” said Manbij countryside resident Abu Omar. “All young men in IS areas have beards. The SDF attacks them just for their appearance, but they hate IS more than the YPG themselves do.” The YPG are the Kurdish People’s Protection Units that make up the bulk of SDF forces in Syria.
The SDF’s suspicion of residents “has caused many residents to prefer IS, despite its oppression and their hatred of it over the YPG because of their violations against civilians,” said Abu Omar.
“People are helpless,” Ahmad, originally from Manbij but currently living in Turkey, just across the border from IS-held Jarablus, told Syria Direct. “As a whole, they’re against IS. Some were tricked into fighting with them, some were forced and want to get out but can’t do so.”
“On the other side, residents are against the SDF” because of alleged violations, he said.
“Poor, disadvantaged civilians are victims of both sides,” says Manbij resident Abu Omar.