Syrians in Kurd-held city fear Turks, bet on US

Manbij: In Syria’s Kurdish-controlled Manbij, salesmen shout as customers bustle through the city’s packed marketplace — an everyday scene that masks residents’ deep fears of a Turkish attack.

Despite the presence of US troops nearby, Manbij could become the next target of a Turkey-led battle against Kurdish militia in Syria’s north.

Ankara and allied Syrian rebels seized the northwestern city of Afrin on March 18, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to push eastward and take Manbij.

“Everybody’s scared, me included,” said Hameed Al Damalkhi, 50, bent over a sewing machine as he stitched the sole back onto a used trainer at his shop in Manbij’s covered market.

He said he was still shocked by images of pro-Ankara fighters looting in Afrin, breaking into shops and homes and heading off with food, blankets and even motorbikes after Kurdish fighters retreated.

“What we hear about them is they’re all thieves. You saw, they looted the whole (Afrin) area,” he said, wearing a stained grey robe and greying beard.

Turkey has said it aims to dislodge the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which it labels a “terrorist” group, from the length of its border with Syria.

“Where does he think he’s going?” Damalkhi said, referring to Erdogan. “There are men here who can protect the area.”

The YPG has gained a reputation as a formidable force, especially as the backbone of a US-backed alliance that expelled Daesh from much of Syria.

Since Syria’s war started in 2011, Manbij has exchanged hands several times.

Rebels overran the town in 2012. Daesh seized it two years later, turning it into a key transit point for fighters, weapons and cash between the Turkish border and its then de facto capital of Raqa, further southeast.

The US-backed and YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took control of Manbij last year, handing the city’s management over to a civil council.

Dozens of American troops have since been stationed on the city’s outskirts, with additional troops deployed there around a year ago.

Their presence offers some comfort to residents, especially after a delegation from the State Department and the US-led coalition visited the city council this week.

Ali Al Sattaf, 50, who works at a money exchange, said the presence of US troops nearby was reassuring.

“It makes us feel that nothing will rain down from the sky,” he said.

The YPG retreated from Afrin in the face of formidable Turkish and rebel fire power, including air strikes that pounded the Kurdish enclave.

The US-led coalition stayed out of the battle for Afrin, but its presence outside Manbij has raised the spectre of a potential conflict between two Nato allies should Turkey attack the city.

On Thursday, State Department official William Roebuck and US Army Major-General James B. Jarrard, who heads a US-led force fighting Daesh, visited Manbij Civil Council.

The aim of the visit was “to reassure the population”, council co-chair Ebrahim Al Kaftan said after the meeting.

“There will be no attack on Manbij, and we received guarantees from the delegation on this matter,” he said.

In Manbij’s Martyrs Square hang portraits of SDF fighters — women and men — killed in the fight against Daesh.

Some of the city’s wall still bear the marks of Daesh’s brutal rule.

In the market, a man wearing a red-and-white scarf walked by carts piled high with apples. Another man darted past on a motorbike, while women in long black robes inspected shoes in a shop window.

Rim, a veiled 30-year-old mother who had come shopping, said she didn’t want to see fighting in Manbij.

“We live in safety now, but we fear for our kids,” she said, as she clutched the hands of her two children.

“We’re tired and our kids are tired from all the fear, the planes and the war,” she said.


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