Sandwiched between ISIS held and Kurdish held Syria, lays a city under siege.  Manbij is a medium sized city south of Kobani and North West of the ISIS capital city of Raqqa.  While many civilians have already fled the city, thousands more are trapped inside.  With coalition airstrikes backing up the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), reports have emerged from within the city that one of these airstrikes killed over a hundred civilians accidentally.  Meanwhile, American advisors deployed from 5th Special Forces Group and JSOC lurk in the background, advising and assisting the SDF.

To get a better feel for the situation on the ground, SOFREP spoke with a Canadian member of the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units), which is one component of the SDF, who is currently on the ground in Manbij, engaging in fighting the so-called Islamic State.  “Two or three days ago we had a really big attack from daesh [ISIS] we killed a lot,” the YPG member who uses the Kurdish war Namegabar Tolhildan told SOFREP in a interview.  “They all carried heavy weapons (RPGs or PKMs) that’s unusual but surely because now there is a lot of desertion from daesh they have more weapons and ammo then what they need.”

An ISIS member preparing to push up daisies in Manbij.
An ISIS member preparing to push up daisies in Manbij.

“The problem in the city is that s the enemy dig tunnels a bit everywhere, they are moving a lot they specially prepared the field to escape from airstrikes,” he continued, reiterating the ISIS tactic of digging networks of tunnels, something that Iraqi and Kurdish forces have witnessed everywhere from Sinjar to Ramadi.  “In Manbij fight is mostly counter guerrilla now…snipers and IEDs.”

As detailed by SOFREP’s previous on the ground reporting in Syria and Iraq, ISIS shows no hesitation at switching between unconventional and conventional tactics.  Where they are strong, ISIS attempts to mass their forces and fight as a Army.  When they are weak, they revert back to terrorist type attacks.  “Now daesh is hidden its not an army anymore so the progression is slow…Yes they are really guerrilla style now because they can’t face with the airstrike and SDF,” the YPG member told SOFREP.  “We prefer going slow rather than losing people,” he added.

Agir (left) and Namegabar (right) holding a captured ISIS flag upside down.

But the SDF has lost people.  On July 14th, an American volunteer in the YPG was killed during the battle for Manbij.  Levi Jonathan Shirley went by the war name Agir Servan.  His mother told CNN that he had wanted to join the US Marine Corps but his eye sight was not good enough.  Namegabar, the Canadian YPG member who served alongside Levi in Syria said that, “Martyr Agir was a real patriot” and that he would be greatly missed.

Politics, Plots, and Double Crosses

Technically, American forces are supporting the SDF, a loose coalition thrown together at the behest of the United States in order to make it look like we are supporting Syrian Arabs, rather than the Kurdish YPG, as this angers Turkey’s Erdogan led government.  Yet another reason why the attempt military coup in Turkey may not have been a bad thing if it succeeded.  In reality, the Arab militias that belong to the SDF are useless or worse than useless as they are combat ineffective against ISIS.

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In order to understand the conflict, you have to understand the geography.  With this in mind, the Kurdish logic behind their campaign begins to make sense.  However, their strategic logic is most likely at odds with the short term goals of the United States, as we hold the SDF’s purse strings when it comes to airstrikes and other military aide.

Kurdish northern Syria, called Rojava, is split up into three cantons.  The battle for Kobani linked the Kobani canton to Jayzera canton (where SOFREP traveled to almost two years ago).  The third canton is called Afrin, sitting in a mountainous region of North West Syria that has been under siege by elements of ISIS, Al-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army, and various other anti-Assad forces at one time or another.  While America would like to see the SDF (realistically the YPG) take the ISIS capital of Raqqa, the Kurds have their own agenda.

Between Kobani and Afrin cantons is about a 20 kilometer stretch of no man’s land which gets occupied by different forces and is administrated by the Turkish military right on the other side of the border.  This is the supply route that the Turkish government uses to support ISIS.  To further explain the situation, we quote a previous article that details the bizarre relationship between the Kurds, America, and Turkey:

So while Turkey is helping American Special Forces soldiers train an ineffective anti-ISIS force within their country, they are also secretly running an ISIS factory, a training facility to prepare Islamists to infiltrate into Syria and fight the Kurdish YPG and PKK. The ISIS training base is toward Turkey’s southwestern border with Syria. After receiving training from Turkish Special Forces, the Islamists are shuttled to the Syrian border, where Turkish border guards receive the code word “lights out,” letting them know that they are to turn a blind eye to the Turkish-sponsored ISIS fighters crossing the border to fight the Kurds.

This creates one of those bizarre situations that arise between countries allied, notionally, on one matter, while secretly undermining each other on another. At the U.S. Special Forces Joint Operations Center (JOC) in Incirlik, Turkish military officers are present. American soldiers have to pretend that they don’t know about the Turkish-run ISIS training camp. Meanwhile, the U.S. forces also have to keep quiet about their very real support for the Kurdish YPG in northern Syria, lest they upset their Turkish hosts. It is all a silly case of plausible deniability, as if the Turkish MIT intelligence service doesn’t know that there are American troops working with the Kurds in Syria.

The “lights out” ISIS re-supply rat line runs through Turkey and into the border town of Jarabulus just inside Syria, just between Afrin and Kobani.  The Kurdish objective here is two-fold, cut off the ISIS re-supply route and geographically connect all three cantons in Rojava, consolidating the military victories which would help them establish an actual state in North Syria.  Imagine America’s thirteen colonies being geographically separated during the Revolutionary War and you can see why this would be so important to the Kurds.

Jarabulus is still in enemy hands, but with the offensive in Manbij, the YPG has cut off the road heading north, through that narrow strip of no man’s land all the way to Turkey. Meanwhile, Assad’s forces are closing in on the city of Al Bab to the South West of Manbij.  Beyond Al Bab, lays Aleppo, where isolated Kurdish forces appear to have entered into an arms length alliance with the Assad regime to fight Nusra and ISIS.  The YPG is already setting their sights of Al Bab, because although it is a Arab (not Kurdish) city, they believe that it will prove strategically decisive in linking Kobani and Afrin cantons.  The Kurds would also like to get to Al Bab before the regime, because they would like to avoid fighting with the actual Syrian military.

The question that arises is one of agenda.  Can the YPG serve two masters, balancing their long standing desire for a state against American demands that they move against Raqqa?  The YPG may not be able to support another two pronged campaign, one fighting south to the ISIS capital and the other fighting west in an attempt to connect with Afrin.  The Kurds also know that Jarabulus is also a part of their end game and must be captured.

What comes next, only time can tell.