MANBIJ, Syria — Even after its liberation from the so-called Islamic State, this city in northern Syria remains draped in jihadist black banners. Anything and everything might be rigged with explosives, and often it is, so people don’t rip down flags without thinking first.
As I visited the scene of battle repeatedly over the weekend, the sound of explosions rocked the city again and again. Sometimes, I was told, they were blasts carried out to get rid of booby traps and IEDs. Sometimes they were bombs people missed until it was too late.
After weeks of fighting, Manbij was taken by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on Friday with the help of U.S. advisers on the ground and coalition bombing from the air.
The town, which once had a population of about 100,000 people, lies at a strategic crossroads on the main highway leading from Raqqa, the capital of ISIS-land, around to the embattled metropolis of Aleppo in the east and prime smuggling routes into Turkey to the north.
While under ISIS control, Manbij gained notoriety as the base for many foreign fighters who had answered the call of the self-proclaimed caliphate. “Little London,” some called it. Among its denizens: Mohammed “Jihadi John” Emwazi, the Brit made famous by videos in 2014 and 2015 that allegedly showed him beheading American and British hostages. (An American drone killed Emwazi in Raqqa in late 2015.)
Now there are a new group of foreign fighters in town, ones affiliated with the Kurdish and Arab troops of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Heval Zagros, one of the SDF volunteers, told me as we threaded our way through town that mines had injured two of his commanders: one lost an eye, the other both his legs. At a checkpoint, we were warned that U.S. Special Forces were disposing of ordnance up ahead. Later, we saw them leaving.
One gets to know the Americans’ demeanor and their uniforms on sight, even without insignia. One bearded soldier looked us up and down from his car, most probably to make sure I wasn’t taking pictures that might provoke a furor like one that erupted in May when U.S. troops were photographed a mere 18 miles from Raqqa.
According to Soran Berxwedan, an anti-ISIS fighter from France, the U.S. and European special forces in Manbij are not often involved in firefights.
“They are advisers and tacticians, and when you see the airstrikes are so precise, you know they are pointing out targets,” he said. “For this job they have to be close to the target.”
Berxwedan said the SDF needs more assistance just like this. “We don’t need a massive intervention like in Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said. “It’s just that the SDF forces don’t know urban warfare. When it’s in the villages it’s all right,” he said, but cities like Manbij are something different. Special forces like the French Foreign Legion or the U.S. Rangers, even in relatively small numbers—“a few helicopters, armored vehicles, snipers”—could make a huge difference on the ground, he told The Daily Beast.
Again and again, we heard detonations as we walked cautiously, one by one, through the city. Several civilians have been killed by explosives since the city was retaken, I was told, because the SDF forces lack de-mining experts. The city is just one huge hurt locker.
Patrick Kasprik from North Fort Myers, Florida, who volunteered as a combat medic with the SDF, told The Daily Beast the hospitals in Manbij are booby-trapped.
“There are so many mines at this point that it’s almost on a ludicrous scale,” he said. “It would be good to have NGOs to come in, and for the coalition to send in doctors.”
“At this moment, the civilians are taking the brunt of what Daesh has left behind in the city,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “There is a humanitarian crisis under the surface. There are no medical professionals. They [the SDF] have set up small field hospitals for civilians, but with 100,000 residents returning to the city of Manbij, we need much more,” said Kasprik (who joined the makeshift foreign legion here while under threat of arrest in Florida for allegedly assaulting a police officer).
“We’ve warned civilians not to approach their houses before they’re cleared by the SDF,” said one of the group’s commanders, known as Abu Amjad. But that’s easier said than done, it was clear, as we watched townspeople arguing ferociously with a local fighter who said they weren’t allowed to visit their homes.
Earlier in the week, when the battle for Manbij was still raging, I watched in the central market as civilians fled ISIS through these deadly improvised minefields. In one case, a baby died, his head covered with blood, his father weeping. “I shouldn’t have left the house,” the father cried.
Although much of the international attention on Manbij over the last month has focused on the alleged killing of hundreds of civilians by coalition airstrikes, most civilians I talked to told me that ISIS booby-traps and snipers were a bigger danger.
During the fight, the mosques were calling on civilians every day not to leave Manbij, not to give it up to the “unbelievers,” and to join the jihad against the SDF. Few did, and many tried to flee, another sign of how unpopular the would-be holy warriors had become here in what was one of the first ISIS-occupied cities to see protests against the rule of the caliphate.
Those civilians, who managed to get out, greeted the anti-ISIS fighters as saviors. “In the name of God, I thank you, may God bless you,” one Arab women said again and again as she was escorted to safety.
Female fighters hugged the fleeing women, who were still covered in black cloaks—and offered them cigarettes, which were banned by ISIS. On camera, women and children burned the black niqabs, then lit up their locally popular Arden cigarettes.
In the market of Manbij, a sign still shows the grimly enforced dress code under ISIS. The sign says the rules for covering women are unchangeable and given by God.
But as anger toward ISIS mounts among Manbij residents, they see little connection between the caliphate and the Almighty. “Is this Islam?” shouted 40-year-old Abu Mohammed as he looked at his destroyed shop. “No, this is not Islam.”
When fighting intensified in recent weeks, ISIS knew that without using civilians as human shields, the battle would soon be over. The SDF leadership, for its part, offered ISIS three proposals allowing them to leave the city if they freed the civilians, but to little effect.
“They put the civilians among them and killed people with snipers, and if you try to leave by car, they shoot at you,” said Fawaz Mohammed, a civilian on a motorcycle. “I wish God to destroy their homes. We don’t have anything left but these clothes.”
Finally, in the last days before the city fell to the SDF, the ISIS fighters threatened to kill hundreds of civilians, only to be allowed to retreat, at last, in civilian clothes and without weapons, north toward Jarabulus, where they are likely to be boxed in near the Turkish border.
According to Zagros, one of the SDF's foreign fighters, the ceasefire started on Thursday, was broken briefly in the early afternoon on Friday, then resumed at 5 p.m. local time. “Daesh left, and Manbij was finished,” he told The Daily Beast.
As I toured the city on Saturday with a 26-year-old fighter named Faysal Jassim, the empty buildings gave a vivid impression of ISIS occupation. There were ISIS schools, administration buildings, police stations, and there are stil constant reminders of the group’s grotesque, medieval sense of “justice.”
In a building that housed the ISIS courts and religious police, there is a poster showing the different punishments—beheading, amputations, and, for homosexuals, to be thrown from high buildings.
Jassim held up a black balaclava mask. “They used this to arrest civilians, so they would remain anonymous,” Jassim said. On the ground in one room were many chains and scattered documents. “We are now in the ISIS court,” said Jassim. “Thank God, it’s now over.”
The record of ISIS horror is clear, and the litanies describing it are oft repeated. “Every city they control is destroyed,” said Ahmed Hussein, 53, as we stood near the infamous roundabout where many people were tortured and executed. “This is one of the places where they beheaded and destroyed people,” he said. “Children couldn’t go to school. They only taught children how to kill. They tortured people. They chained them. They forced women to cover themselves. They destroyed freedom. What kind of Islam is this?”
It was not surprising, then, to see local men shaving their beards and the women shedding their cloaks as Arab and Kurdish fighters celebrated with a victory dance.
But liberating Manbij is not enough. De-mining it is not enough. The real question needs to be who will rebuild it, and how quickly, and with what money?
Who will show, a year from now, that life in Manbij is so much better than it was under ISIS? If there are no jobs and the city is in ruins, that may not be so obvious.
So far, the U.S.-led coalition has given only military support. Humanitarian aid and funding for reconstruction is lacking.
Even the city of Kobani that resisted and defeated ISIS in January 2015 with the help of U.S. airstrikes is still not rebuilt, as an SDF official, Nassir Haji Mansour, told The Daily Beast.
“Some states say they want to fight ISIS and liberate areas from ISIS control,” said Mansour. “Manbij is a big city, its neighborhoods are destroyed, and people in Manbij are suffering.”
“The local administration will not be able to deal with this,” he said. “The coalition states most help cities like Manbij. If they want to fight ISIS, they should really fight ISIS.”
Another question that looms is about the next move of the Kurdish-led SDF coalition: will they go southeast toward Raqqa, as suggested by U.S. officials, or west toward Afrin in Aleppo province, to connect their three Kurdish canton administrations in one federal region.
The SDF forces on Sunday created a new military council to capture al-Bab, on the way to the city of Aleppo and to Afrin, and called on the support of the U.S.-led coalition.
But it’s unclear if the coalition will be pulled in that direction. To be sure, al-Bab is important for ISIS. It is one of the main towns in the Aleppo district controlled by the caliphate. More importantly, it’s home base for the ISIS foreign intelligence headquarters, where, as The Daily Beast has reported, some of the attacks on Europe were prepared.
According to Soran Berxwedan, it would be important to capture al-Bab to cut ISIS off from the rest of the world by controlling the Turkish border, and the coalition should back the SDF’s play. “We couldn’t have liberated Manbij without airstrikes,” he said.
Ankara won’t be enthusiastic about that level of border control by a force with Kurdish elements it deems hostile. As a result, coalition support may be hard to come by. But the die may already have been cast.
“After three days we will go to al-Bab,” said Heval Rupelin, a Kurdish female fighter. “Our commanders told us.”
The coming months are shaping up as crucial in the fight against ISIS, with more operations to be launched both in Syria and in Iraq near Mosul.
But winning the war may be pointless without winning the peace.