This post mentions various factions involved in the Syrian civil war – if you want to have a refresher, here are some of the most important in this post:
Syrian Democratic Forces/SDF – Mainly Kurdish faction operating in Northern Syria, backed by the West, fighting against ISIS
SAA – Syrian Arab Army, the military force of the Assad government, fighting against ISIS and rebel rebel groups. Does not fight against SDF.
This month brings developments mainly in Northern Syria, around Aleppo and the areas geographically north of it.
Perhaps the most interesting developments took place on the Raqqa front, with both the Syrian government forces and the Kurdish-lead Syrian Democratic forces advancing on the city. For context – the city of ar-Raqqah and the majority of Raqqah governorate surrounding it have been under ISIS control for the past three years. In fact ar-Raqqah is the “capital” and the biggest city of the Islamic State in Syria.
The question now is who will reach it first – the Kurdish-backed forces or the Assad government forces? Another important thing to consider is the city of Al-Tabqa (visible on the map above as well), which houses a military airfield and most importantly the Tabqa dam. This dam is the biggest in region and control over it means essentially control of the water-systems and over the flow of the Euphrates river. If the Kurds were for example to reach the dam before the SAA (Assad forces), they would have immense leverage in a post-war situation to demand more rights for themselves.
A while ago it seemed like the Kurdish-backed forces were making a serious push for the city of Raqqah, but this week they have instead shifted their focus to the city of Manbij, visible on the map above as the area where the orange arrows are concentrated – showing the advancing SDF forces. This operation is significant because it involved the crossing of the Euphrates river by the Kurdish-backed forces – something Turkey had warned them not to do previously. Indeed, the Euphrates was supposed to be Erdogan’s “red line”, not to be crossed.
Of course, as we can see on the map, the yellow area signifying Kurd-controlled area now extends across the Euphrates, in spite of what Erdogan had forbid them to do. Crossing the river was not an easy task however, as ISIS had blown up the only bridge in the area, therefore protecting them from any kind of attack.
However, the SDF (Kurdish lead) forces therefore did something that has never been done before in the Syrian civil war – they conducted an amphibious assault, sending men and equipment over using boats. This was only possible thanks to heavy support by the US Air Force, which bombed ISIS positions on the other side of the river, allowing the Kurds to form a beachhead on the other bank
Another interesting thing to note that it was not only the Kurdish/Arabic SDF that was on the ground establishing the beachhead against ISIS – there were some mysterious foreign “grey men” present with Western equipment and wearing non-local outfits
These mysterious people are quite obviously US Special Operations members, who have been sent there to assist the Kurds in their fight against ISIS.
As of 21:00 08.06 the SDF forces have essentially advanced to surround the city of Manbij and will probably launch the offensive to take the city soon.
One thing to note is that the city is not empty – although being under ISIS control it still very many civilians living in it. This means that and offensive to take the city will force a huge number of people to become refugees or internally displaces persons – indeed, the UN has warned that the Manbij battle could uproot more than 200,000 Syrians. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) of the UN over 20,000 have been displaced already with 216,000 potentially more being displaced. As of now it seems that the border crossings have been closed by the Turkish side, meaning that the fleeing civilians are trapped in Syria, and even worse, in ISIS held territory. Here is a dilemma which the Turkish government must face – will they open the gates and let the refugees in, knowing that they can’t care for them and that the border areas with Syria are already saturated with people fleeing from the conflict.. or will they keep the gates closed, and deal with the moral repercussions of potentially being responsible for civilians being slaughtered at the hands of ISIS. As one can see, there are no black&white choices when it comes to the conflict in Syria.
In the next post I will talk about the situation in Azaz and Marea. Until then!