A race for control of Syria’s Manbij, with the U.S. nowhere in sight

Syria conflict
Syrian government soldiers hold up portraits of President Bashar Assad while flashing the victory sign at a position on the outskirts of the northern city of Manbij on Wednesday.
(AFP/Getty Images)

By the time U.S. forces withdrew Tuesday from the northern Syrian city of Manbij, it had become the prize in a race for territory involving a mix of fighting groups with changing alliances.

The city, part of the territory controlled by Kurdish fighters backed by the United States until last week, appeared on the verge of being rushed by Turkish troops and Syrian rebel proxies gathered on the city’s outskirts. The Kurds, feeling betrayed by the U.S., in recent days partnered with Syrian government troops to protect themselves.

What happens with Manbij, which provides control of a key supply route from Iraq, will test how effective the Kurds’ alliance with Damascus will be. The city’s experience illustrates the ebb and flow of fortunes in the eight-year Syrian war, and how the conflict turned an obscure city of some 300,000 people into the focal point for authorities.

Manbij lies nearly 20 miles south of the Syrian-Turkish border, which puts it within the scope of the cross-border military offensive Turkey launched last week with President Trump’s implicit blessing, and which aims to establish a roughly 20-mile buffer zone on Syrian soil. Another goal is to oust the Syrian Kurdish militiamen who until a few days ago had been Washington’s top allies in the region in the fight against Islamic State militants, but whom Ankara considers terrorists.


Since the offensive began almost a week ago, dozens of people have been killed, activist groups say, and the United Nations estimates at least 160,000 people have been displaced from their homes. The operation has also led to a dismantling of the United States’ presence in Syria, which had empowered the Kurdish militiamen against Islamic State since 2014, while creating a statelet in northeastern Syria.

One example of the dismantling came Tuesday when Col. Myles B. Caggins, a spokesman for the U.S., wrote on Twitter: “We are out of Manbij.” He added it was part of a “deliberate withdrawal” from northeastern Syria.

The withdrawal from Manbij came after what Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Monday said was an “unacceptable” level of risk to U.S. forces caused by “Turkey’s irresponsible actions.”

Troops drove out of two bases near Manbij in what appeared to be a move coordinated with Russian and Syrian troops for safety reasons.

“In Syria, the Coalition de-conflicts military operations with other regional forces, in order to keep our troops safe,” Caggins tweeted.

“We seek to deconflict our movements through pre-existing communication channels and interlocutors, in order to reduce the risk of interference, miscalculation, or unintended escalation of military operations.”


Russia’s Defense Ministry on Tuesday confirmed the U.S. servicemen had left two bases close to the city.

In Manbij, pro-Syrian government journalists published images on social media and elsewhere depicting military vehicles sporting Russian and Syrian government flags taking a tour of the city’s main thoroughfares.

It served as a sign for many observers of Russia replacing the U.S. as the top power broker in the country.

For Manbij, it was another turn in the rotating cast of characters who had come to impose their vision on the city since 2011.

Syria’s opposition forces had taken over in 2012, wresting control of Manbij from government troops. But the city’s position on the M4, a strategic highway linking the city of Aleppo to the Iraqi border, made it an important prize for Islamic State. Its extremists blitzed through in January 2014, ousting the rebels and setting Manbij as one of the main hubs of their sprawling caliphate.

It wasn’t until mid-2016 that Kurdish fighters, working as part of a Kurdish-Arab grouping of militias — the Syrian Democratic Forces — organized by the U.S., dislodged the extremists. The U.S. also helped install local councils, provided reconstruction money and set up two large bases that became a hub of U.S. activity, turning Manbij into a gateway for the Kurds’ larger enclave to the east of the Euphrates River.

The U.S. Army, meanwhile, hosted senators and other U.S. officials and journalists for visits to Manbij, touting the city as a model for what governance in Syria should be.

It was an infuriating development for Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally of the U.S. that insisted the Kurdish fighters were a splinter group of a Kurdish insurgent faction it has fought for decades at home. Manbij soon became a symbol for what Ankara believed was Washington’s disregard for its security concerns.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly threatened to invade Manbij, while the U.S. placated him with promises that the Kurds would leave the city and offered to run joint patrols with Turkish troops as a peacekeeping measure in the city.

That changed last week after Trump’s snap decision to withdraw troops, leaving Manbij open to Erdogan’s designs.

On Monday, Erdogan said his forces were planning to push toward Manbij. He said the agreements made with Washington had not been adhered to, and Turkey was tired of waiting.

“According to our reciprocal agreement with the United States on Manbij, terror organizations should have evacuated the city within 90 days,” Erdogan told reporters in Istanbul. “A year passed, and Manbij has to be deserted” by Kurdish forces, he said.

On Tuesday, however, Russia and the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad were in charge of the city.

A Russian journalist traveling with Syrian government forces posted videos from one of the former U.S. bases near the city. In one video, he can be seen at the entrance of one of the bases, toying with a controller that raises and lowers a beige metal barrier.

“Just yesterday morning, they were here,” he says in the video, referring to members of the U.S. military. “And this morning, here we are.”

Times staff writer Bulos reported from Amman, Jordan, and special correspondent Farooq from Akcakale.