The long-running urban battle to capture the town of Manbij in northern Syria from ISIS has finally come to a close.
By Michael Cruickshank, @MJ_Cruickshank
The town of Manbij in Northern Syria was one of the largest urban centers still controlled by ISIS west of the Euphrates River. It was used as a primary transfer point for foreign fighters entering the so-called Islamic State and also functioned as a local administrative center. As such it represented an important target for the US backed Kurdish and FSA coalition called the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF).
On May 31, the SDF launched an operation to capture the town and surrounding territories. Starting from Tishreen Dam, the SDF Manbij Offensive, also known as the “Operation Martyr and Commander Faysal Abu Layla”, rapidly captured areas around the town, and completed an encirclement of it by June 10. While the battles around Manbij were relatively easy, this would not be the case for the fight within the town itself.
ISIS had over 1000 fighters within the city, and they fiercely fought back against SDF attempts to move into outlying neighborhoods. One particularly well-defended area was the grain silos on the south of the town, which held out for over a week, even after being bombed by Coalition airstrikes. Nonetheless, the combination of SDF ground forces, backed by western Special Forces and airstrikes, eventually began pushing into the center of the city. Day by day, new neighborhoods fell to the SDF, but casualties remained high.
As well, many civilians were trapped within the town, making attacks all the more difficult. Despite the best efforts of the SDF, hundreds of civilians were killed over the course of the offensive, with some being used as human shields by ISIS, and others just caught in the crossfire. One particularly deadly moment came as a result of a Coalition airstrike north of Manbij which killed around 100 civilians according to sources on the ground.
By the first week of August, SDF troops had all but captured the center of Manbij, with the only remaining pocket of resistance the Al-Sirib neighborhood. There around 100 ISIS fighters remained, reportedly holding a significant number of civilians hostage. After attempts to negotiate for their release failed, the SDF launched a final assault on the neighborhood on August 12. Following a final phase of intense fighting, the Battle of Manbij was won.
The capture of Manbij is a large strategic victory for the SDF and its western backers against ISIS. It will significantly weaken the position of the extremist group in northern Syria, and accelerate the shrinking trend of the Islamic State. However, the fact that the fight for this (relatively) small town cost hundreds of SDF troops does not bode well for future operations towards Ar-Raqqa.
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