A senior Kurdish military official searched for the words when speaking of the Manbij, a northern city in the Aleppo Governate, which was recently released from ISIS control after months of battle. First and foremost, he spoke of the Manbij women. “We wept when the women were freed,” he said. “Right now the situation is good. People are returning to their routines, their villages and homes. ISIS has been run out and every day we release additional villages from their control.”
The big question asked after the Manbij’s release was whether the Syrian Democratic Forces—the military organization made up mainly of Kurdish rebels that managed to free the city due to US backing—would allow the locals citizens in Manbij to regain control of their city, or annex it as part of the growing Kurdish entity forming in northern Syria, a development that Turkey has been monitoring with growing dissatisfaction. The same official, who despite being Kurdish is part of local resistance and not SDF, said that “Currently, things are run by a civil council. Our mission is to protect the city from ISIS. All this talk of annexation by the Kurds is nothing but propaganda.” He added that “We just want to run Manbij in a democratic fashion. The people of Manbij are the ones who will decide how to run things and what will become of it. The SDF have given us the city and are assisting us in South Manbij. This is how they are supposed to act in every city they manage to release.”
In the meantime, the SDF’s focus has seemed to witch from Manbij to the city of Al-Hasakah, where in an unprecedented move, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has begun to airstrike the Kurdish stronghold. The official linked Assad’s move to ties between Syria, Turkey and Iran: “The regime wants to court Turkey by hurting Kurds to show it factors into the greater equation. Following the SDF’s success, the Syrian regime wants to show its relevancy by showing Turkey it can assist it, but it won’t work, since it lacks the public’s support.”
“Everyone has a plan in regard to Syria,” he continued. “The Turks, the Russians, the Iranians and the Saudis, but they’re all going to fail. We want everyone to live under a democracy, without extremism or a totalitarian regime. This isn’t about establishing a Kurdish entity, but about creating a democratic Syria where the Kurdish people could receive its rights.”
He also refuted claims that the Kurds are pushing other ethnicities aside. “We don’t have ethnic friction here. There are those who wish to ignite a war between the Shiites and Sunis resulting in separate Muslim emirates, but they don’t speak for the Syrian people.”
The photos that caught the world’s attention following the freeing of Manbij were those depicting the city’s women burning their veils and smoking cigarettes in defiance of ISIS prohibitions. “For three years, people living in Manbij suffered from ISIS’s terrorism, and the women were the ones who suffered most. ISIS denied them their dignity. It wasn’t just an operation to free Manbij, it was an operation to free the Manbij woman. We wept when we saw the women freed.”
As the city’s residents celebrated their freedom, many of their neighbors remained captive: on Friday, as the last remaining ISIS militants fled the city, some of the local civilians were rounded up and forced to march alongside ISIS’s forces, acting as human shields from SDF fire. The long trail of ISIS vehicles flanked by their family members and additional kidnapped locals continued until they reached the next ISIS enclave—the Syrian city of Jarabulus, where the captives continue to remain under ISIS control.