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Manbij: Syria’s modern-day Danzig

Establishing safe zones and no-fly zones was among the first critical demands made regarding the Syria crisis. Yet the then-US administration led by former President Barack Obama — keen on rehabilitating its rival Iran and turning it into a reliable ally in the region — turned down those requests time and again. Despite the atrocities of war and displacement being loud and blatant, justifications on US idleness were plainly obstinate.

The US claimed that safe zones were costly in terms of policy, funding and the military. More so, it could have entailed deploying troops to Syria at a time when it was busy pulling them out of Iraq. At the time, none reflected on the very short distance between Turkey’s Incirlik air base and the proposed safe zone. Located in the Incirlik quarter of Adana city and controlled by the Turkish and US air forces, the base is nestled right by the border with Syria.

None questioned the perpetual US refusal since Ankara (despite its opinion about the invasion of Iraq) was still ready to put the air base under international forces assigned to maintaining and protecting the safe zones. In 2015, it was confirmed that Ankara would allow the US to fly combat sorties against Daesh in Syria from Incirlik.

Afterward, both Russian and Iranian interference in Syria escalated. Tehran and Moscow did not consider the cost of maintaining these safe zones as too high, despite the US doing so. Idleness persevered against the prohibited use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs by the Syrian regime, which forced the brutal displacement of masses and demographic change.

Yet with Russian interference, the regime stood to gain much from that, firstly by reclaiming strategic Aleppo. Secondly, after the downing of the Russian Sukhoi aircraft near the Syria-Turkey border in November 2015, Ankara was convinced that the West would not rush to its aid should any confrontation arise with Moscow.

Moreover, US military support was presented to Kurdish forces in Syria, which Turkey considers a threat. The support was reasoned as a counterterrorism effort against Daesh. The US rashly praised Kurdish militia efforts, labeling them “phenomenal accomplishments” — especially in the Ein Al-Arab battles against Daesh — even though extensive air support covered Kurdish-led operations in Syria.

Had US air support been provided to Syrian rebels, who only received ridicule from the Obama administration, Syria might have not become the tragedy it is today. A few months ago, Al-Bab could have turned into Syrian rebels’ modern-day Stalingrad. Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel forces, backed by Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield, made substantial advances toward the strategic town, driving Daesh militants out of their stronghold.

Before that, the terrorist group had lost substantial territory to combined FSA and Turkish efforts, such as the border city of Jarablus. Notably, Daesh lost Manbij to US-supported Kurdish militias.

The strategic location of Danzig (or the Polish city Gdansk) — situated by the Baltic Sea — was a key reason for it becoming a German base in World War I. Danzig had an early history of independence. Danzig was a meeting point and a place of severe conflict between Prussia, Poland and Russia. Similarly, Manbij is at a crossroad of conflicts emerging between Kurds, Arabs and Turks.

Eyad Abu Shakra

It is worth noting that the battle of Al-Bab lasted quite some time, as the contentious arena was a crossway for several operations staged by multilateral forces, each based on different agendas. As developments unfolded, Turkish forces and their Syrian allies took Al-Bab. But the second stage of Operation Euphrates Shield is far from accomplished, particularly amid regional and international disarray.

Ankara, naturally, announced its plans not only to establish a safe zone between the western city of Aazaz and Euphrates-neighboring Jarablus, but also advance to the city of Manbij. Thereon, Turkish forces will continue pushing southeast to Raqqa. Yet this stance translates to a direct confrontation with US-backed Kurdish forces.

Kurdish militias had their image reinvented by the US and given an attractive name, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). More so, many Arab tribes joined the embellished SDF. These forces later carried their own self-styled “nationalist” agenda, which they will stop at nothing to fulfill.

When zooming in on Raqqa, de facto capital of Daesh’s self-proclaimed caliphate, many serious altercations surface, outlining the future fallout of any entity (or entities) able to survive on Syrian land. Manbij is today a crossroad for these fallouts. From it come the greater contradictions involved in determining future events, possibly beyond Syria itself.

Manbij has turned into what seems like the semi-autonomous city-state Danzig (or the Polish city Gdansk), whose strategic location, situated by the Baltic Sea, was a key reason for it becoming a German base in World War I. Danzig had an early history of independence. It was a leading player in the Prussian Confederation directed against the Teutonic Monastic State of Prussia. This city sparked many wars and battles.

Moreover, out of this city came Lech Walesa and the Solidarity Labour Union, which rose up against communist rule before the fall of the Soviet Union. Danzig was a meeting point and a place of severe conflict between Prussia, Poland and Russia. Similarly, Manbij is at a crossroad of conflicts emerging between Kurds, Arabs and Turks.

Manbij today is paying the steep price of US ambiguity and Russian aggression in Syria. It also accounts for the opportunistic greed of some Kurdish groups exploiting a dismantled country. Manbij also stands to be affected by the fluctuating foreign policy of Iran and Turkey.

As Ankara defends the ongoing expansion of its military offensive in Syria — involving Raqqa (a Kurd-free zone) — Washington also stands idle against escalating demographic tensions. The Kurdish agenda in northern Syria is now on pause. Evidently, and with America’s say, Manbij is Syria’s Danzig.

• Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article was originally published.