After months of preparation and 10 weeks of fierce fighting, a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), took full control of Manbij on 12 August 2016 after driving Islamic State (IS) militants from the strategic town. The fall of Manbij following the fall of Fallujah, Palmyra, Ramadi, Shaddadeh, Sinjar and Sirte is a major setback to the Islamic State. Islamic State has lost nearly 10,000 square miles, accounting to nearly 50 percent of what it once controlled in Iraq and 20 percent of what they held in Syria. The defeat of ISIS will definitely demoralize its fighters and damage its reputation among its sympathizers.
Manbij Offensives also known as Operation Martyr was launched on 31 May 2016 by the SDF backed by US coalition forces. The Offensive has succeeded in getting hold of the “Manbij Pocket”. Manbij is the second largest town in the northern province of Aleppo and is situated close to the River Euphrates and the Turkish border. The SDF has been considered to be instrumental and the most effective force in the battle and victory for Manbij and is mainly constituted of Kurdish and Arab fighters but is dominated by Syrian Kurdish militia also known as YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel) or People’s Protection Unit.
Why Manbij was Important?
As of now Manbij is the epicenter of the Syrian war and fight against ISIS. ISIS seized Manbij in January 2014, and due to the city’s strategic location, used it as a hub for recruiting and processing foreign fighters and for dispatching operatives across the Turkish border for potential use in external operations. The defeat of ISIS in the course of “Manbij Offensives” is strategically significant as it was also the main supply route from the Turkish border to their de-facto capital, Raqqa.
The two important cities of Al-Bab and Jarablus, near the Turkish border are respectively located 50 and 30 kms south and north of Manbij. Manbij can serve as an important base for the SDF to capture both the cities and thereby shut down the entry and exit points for Jihadists in Syria.
What Next: Al-Bab or Raqqa?
SDF commanders have already announced the establishment of Al-Bab Military council which means Al-Bab is their next target; but there seems to be a conflict with regard to priority. “The Americans and the international coalition prefers to advance on Raqqa, and this was their position even before the Manbij offensive,” as stated by Ahmad Hisso Araj, a spokesman for the SDF, whereas their opinion [of the SDF] is that Al-Bab is more of a priority than Raqqa.”
Prioritizing Al-Bab is very obvious as Kurds in SDF want to seize the opportunity amidst continuing battle against Islamic State in Syria to link western canton of Afrin to the rest of region they call ‘Rojava’(Syrian Kurdistan), which it considers to be historically Kurdish. Al-Bab according to them is part of that historical Kurdish Land and Raqqa is not. YPG , which constitutes a major faction of SDF, wants to expand its control and sphere of influence in their claimed historic Kurdish land and so attacking Raqqa will not serve their purpose.
On the other hand Commander of the Coalition Army Lt. Gen Sean McFarland has asserted that defeating ISIS at Manbij has set the stage for eventual attack to seize Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS. He also stressed that retaking of ISIS-controlled Raqqa will “mark the beginning of the end for ISIS in Syria.” So, it will be interesting to see as to which city will be the target in the upcoming offensives launched on ISIS by SDF and US led coalition forces which will to an extent decide the future of the Syrian War.
Geopolitical Implications in the Region
The fall of ISIS at Manbij has set a stage for geopolitical implications and speculations especially on Turkish –Kurdish relations. Turkey is uncomfortable with the US-Kurdish alliance in the fight against ISIS. Turkey considers Kurds and their militia a bigger threat to their peace and security in the region. The strategic location of Manbij and Jarabulus, which is in close proximity to the Turkish border and the expansionist designs of the Kurdish fighters to claim the historical Kurdish land by linking the cities of Afrin to the rest of Rojava have led Turkey to look unfavourably at the Manbij victory against ISIS. Turkey has considered the crossing of Kurdish fighters westward over the Euphrates River to be the red line; there have been incidents where Kurdish fighters crossed the Euphrates. Such an action by the Kurdish fighters or YPG has led to speculations by the Turkish officials that PYD (Syrian Democratic Party) and the Kurdish fighters are using the fight against ISIS as a pretext for their own Kurdish territorial expansion.
Turkish officials have opined “that if the Kurdish forces did not withdraw from the Syrian territories at the western bank of the Euphrates, especially Manbij, Turkey will take it”. To this Kurdish forces have responded by saying that “Turkey will end up as the Syrian regime in Hasakah if it invades the city of Manbij”.
By launching operation Euphrates Shield, Turkey has targeted both ISIS and YPK at the same time. The operation aims to split the Kurdish territory and thereby restrict them from creating a Kurdish autonomous region. The clash between Turkey and Kurds has complicated the situation for the United States as it finds itself locked-in between two allies.
State of the Islamic State
ISIS has been in the back foot the past few months having lost considerable amount of fighters and territory. It has failed to launch any successful counter offensive. which means it has lost its strength on ground as compared to its peak days of 2014. The ISIS, which succeeded in carving out and capturing territory all across Iraq and Syria, has lost control of nearly half of its captured territory to SDF and the Iraqi Army supported by the US. The Islamic State has lost about 45 percent of its territory in Syria and 20 percent in Iraq since the peak of its control in August 2014. Islamic State has lost Manbij (August, 2016), Fallujah (June, 2016), Palmyra (March, 2016), Ramadi (January, 2016), Shaddadi (February 2016) Tikrit (March, 2015). And so there is a paradigm shift in their modus operandi. Their focus has shifted from controlling territory to launching and executing terrorist operations across Europe and other parts of the world. Analysis of relevant numbers around both the Kurdish-led advance and ISIS’s current state of martial power clearly shows that ISIS is heavily outnumbered by the SDF which has around 80,000 active fighters in Syria – with about 50,000 coming from the Kurdish YPG. US military now estimates some 45,000 ISIS personnel have been killed by the coalition since operations began in mid-2014. ISIS at present is suspected to have only 19,000-25,000 active fighters spread between Syria and Iraq, which represents a 20 percent plunge since it peaked in 2014.
Islamic State has also lost key infrastructure and resources, which helped them generate income. It lost Alas and Ajeel Oil Field in May 2015, Baiji Refinery in October 2015, Kabiba Oil Field in February 2015 and Al-Badia Cement Plant in April 2016. But ISIS still has the three largest oil fields — Omar, Tanak and Al Taim — all in Syria; together they produce an estimated 13,500 barrels of oil per day. At this point in time ISIS is surrounded at many fronts and is facing tough and fierce opposition from opponents in both Syria and Iraq.
The Fall of Manbij is definitely an encouraging victory against ISIS but the Syrian Conflict is far from over. The conflicting groups with vested political interest are involved in an unending spiral of violence and war. Amidst the complex multidimensional nature of Syrian War more comprehensive and coordinated step needs to be taken in order to defeat ISIS and root out the jihadists. Unfortunately, the sectarian nature of Syrian war has taken toll in thousands and has ruined the lives of innocent Syrians.
 For details see: Jiyar Gol(2016), “IS conflict: Syria’s Kurds set sights on al-Bab after fall of Manbij”,[www.bbc.com], Accessed on 25 August 2016, URL: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-37093856
 For details see: Raja Abdulrahim (2016), “The Wall Street Journal: U.S.-Backed Forces Aim at Another Syrian Town”. Accessed on 25 August 2016, URL: http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-backed-forces-aim-at-another-syrian-town-1471302138
 For details see: Jiyar Gol, (16 Aug, 2016), “IS conflict: Syria’s Kurds set sights on al-Bab after fall of Manbij” Accessed on 25 August 2016, URL: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-37093856
 For Details see: By Angela Dewan and Hamdi Alkhshali (2016), CNN. URL: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/08/13/middleeast/syria-isis-manbij/
 For details see Raja Abdulrahim (2016), “The Wall Street Journal: U.S.-Backed Forces Aim at Another Syrian Town”, [www.wsj.com], Accessed on 26 August 2016, URL: http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-backed-forces-aim-at-another-syrian-town-1471302138
 For details see: “Collapse of key ISIS jihadi border pocket in Syria”, [www.aranews.net], Accessed on 27 August 2016, URL: http://aranews.net/2016/08/collapse-of-key-isis-jihadi-border-pocket-in-syria/
 For details see: “YPG warns Turkey over Manbij invasion” [www.aranews.net], Accessed on 29 August 2016, URL: http://aranews.net/2016/08/ypg-warns-turkey-manbij-invasion/
 For details see: Sarah Almukhtar, Tim Wallace and Derek Watkins (2016)[ www.nytimes.com], Accessed on 29 August 2016,URL: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/06/18/world/middleeast/isis-control-places-cities.html?_r=0
 For details see URL: http://www.napalminthemorning.com/sdf-ypg-manbij-isis-raqqa-liberation/
 For details see: Barbara Starr (2016) , “Defense officials see gains against ISIS ” [ edition.cnn.com], Accessed on 28 August 2016. URL: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/08/15/politics/isis-syria-coalition-gains-in-fight/
 For details see URL: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/06/18/world/middleeast/isis-control-places-cities.html?_r=0