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

For The Los Angeles Times


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.

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