But it also highlights the continuing tension between the Free Syrian Army and the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, and the dangers this poses for civilians.
Following a meeting between the US secretary of state and Turkey’s foreign minister in Washington on 4 June, the US and Turkey released a joint statement saying that the both sides have endorsed a road map on how to proceed in the northern Syrian city of Manbij. The statement leaves many questions about the deal unanswered. But the deal offers a chance for some relief for the population of Manbij – while also highlighting the tension between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and the dangers this poses for civilians.
Changing the status quo
Having Turkey on board in governing the city of Manbij is an opportunity to create a more balanced governing authority which can end the absolute power of the predominantly Kurdish SDF, along with the major influence exercised by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Manbij is majority-Arab, and many see any violation by the SDF forces and their affiliated institutions, regardless of how trivial or major, as an ethnic-based act.
‘Most of the positions and opportunities in the city are given to disqualified and even uneducated people just because they are Kurds,’ said a civilian from Manbij. ‘You can feel the ethnic-driven hatred by the Kurdish forces at any checkpoint in the city,’ said another.
Changing the status quo in Manbij could also end its isolation from the nearby FSA-controlled territories by removing the entry restrictions imposed in the city for security purposes. In May 2017, the SDF issued new regulations preventing the residents of the areas out of its control from entering SDF-controlled territories unless they show a ratified and hard-to-obtain sponsorship. The same problem arises for the residents of SDF-controlled areas whose IDs show otherwise. No doubt imposing these restrictions in Manbij has brought about major social and economic consequences.
‘Almost each family in Manbij has relatives living in Jarablus or Al-Bab or any other surrounding cities. We feel that we are under a partial siege. My brother is few kilometres away, but we feel that we live in two different states,’ said a civilian from Manbij. ‘Manbij has always been as a capital for people living in the countryside of Aleppo. Before this law, half of my patients were from nearby areas. Now people almost need a visa to visit a doctor or receive treatment in a hospital in Manbij,’ said a doctor from Manbij.
Economically, locals under the governance of the SDF seem to be struggling with the high customs tariffs and taxes imposed by the corresponding offices. According to merchants, customs offices in Manbij impose tariffs on all goods and items imported from Turkey into Manbij or other SDF-controlled territories east of the Euphrates. (Manbij serves as a gate between the east and west of the Euphrates.) This payment is additional to another transit fee imposed by the authorities at the FSA-controlled gates who see their location on the way to Manbij as an economic opportunity.
‘My convoys of goods going to Manbij are usually charged with at least three different payments: one payment at the Turkish gate, another payment to FSA offices to obtain a pass towards SDF-controlled territories and a final payment to the SDF customs office,’ said a Syrian merchant based in Turkey.
All these payments would certainly increase the final price of items, negatively impacting civilians’ capacity to afford living. The participation of Turkey in administering Manbij would likely move the borders with SDF-controlled territories to a new gate point, taking the financial burden of custom tariffs off Manbij residents’ shoulders.
Moreover, governing institutions in Manbij seem to be reliant on taxes as a major source of income. ‘The rate of taxes and fees imposed in the city now is the highest compared to other areas and to the payments we made in the past. I paid recently $3,000 in taxes for my new car,’ said one resident.
Unlike people living in FSA-controlled areas, Manbij residents are bound to pay a long list of taxes in exchange for public services. Resentment towards the amount of these taxes is alarming, especially for the poor segment of the community. However, it remains unclear whether Turkey and its affiliated locals who are expected to run Manbij would adopt a financing model similar to other FSA-controlled areas.
The new deal has also triggered some concerns over people’s security and the potential role to be played by FSA armed factions. Many have fears that the deal would allow the FSA groups to gain access or exercise influence in governing the city.
Manbij today is perceived to be more stable and secure than the other parts of Syria controlled by Turkey-backed forces, such as al-Bab and Azaz, which are riddled with infighting. Manbij Military Council spokesperson Shervan Derwish asserted in a recent statement that in contrast to Manbij, the areas of Syria now controlled by Turkey are not stable. Turkey must pay attention to ensure that the road map over Manbij does not allow FSA groups to use the city as a new battlefield over interests.
Another concern is the safety of civilians who are perceived to be pro-SDF or have collaborated with the YPG, and who face the potential of being reported in FSA records as ‘traitors’. Considering the inflammatory and antagonistic language used by FSA members in referring to SDF and their affiliates, this risk should not be overlooked.
According to locals, FSA animosity with the SDF deepened following the Olive Branch operation, in which Turkey invested heavily in mobilizing the opposition fighters against the YPG and their allies. Moreover, FSA forces appointed recently a security committee to chase the terrorists who were identified to be ISIS and SDF suspects. The disagreement over the definition of terrorism here will put many civilians at risk if FSA counterterrorism elements become part of the future of Manbij.
Similar concerns arise for civilians who were arrested by the SDF over links to ISIS and then acquitted or released after the expiry of their sentences. Such terrorism cases were handled by the People’s Protection Court and in accordance with the counterterrorism law that was formulated by the local legislative council of Rojava in 2014.
The likelihood of this court’s decisions being acknowledged by the FSA is slim. One person reported that after being remanded in custody and acquitted, he found out that his name was still on the FSA’s wanted list.
A good road map for Manbij would not completely dissolve the current security apparatus in the city. Instead, it would contribute to its established elements and structures to create a more balanced apparatus and avoid any retaliatory actions in the city.
Amer is a Syrian researcher and security analyst based in London. He holds a BSc in Economics, MSc in Banking and Finance, and an MA in Conflict Resolution and Security Studies at Bradford University, UK.