Between the 31st of March and the 1st of June, violent protests erupted in Manbij, which left at least three civilians dead and over a dozen injured. Concurrently, Russian troops attacked a security point of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), and the Turkish army shelled and continues to shell the villages around Manbij. In its aftermath, the local administration established public discussions; a fact-finding committee to investigate possible misconduct by their security forces; and a higher committee, consistent of representatives from a variety of civil and military institutions, as well as tribal representatives, in order to discuss 17 demands the public had related to the Tribal Council. During a visit to Manbij in mid-June, RIC found relative calm in the city, where all institutions we spoke to, including the Tribal Council, were eager to work together to resolve the issues which lead to the protest. It also found that the protests were, to a large extent, directed and encouraged by outside forces – namely, the Damascus government (GoS). Nonetheless, the issues the protesters riled around are domestic and by no means entirely a construct of foreign actors. Issues surrounding conscription, high prices for basic goods, and arbitrary arrests of civilians are indeed present, though not insurmountable. More worryingly, RIC recorded an uptick in frontline attacks emanating from Turkish-controlled territory. It seems apparent that both GoS and Turkey are actively attempting to destabilize Manbij and undermine the AANES.
Manbij region lies on the western banks of the Euphrates river and is home to no more than half a million people. The population is mainly Arab, though Kurds, Turkmen, Circassians and Chechens make up significant minorities. Besides the major city of Manbij, 8 small towns and 360 villages dot this region. Echoing its stature during the Hellenistic period, when ancient Ieropolis/Hierapolis served as a chief station of the Seleucid Empire, modern Manbij’s location is strategically appealing to all parties to the Syrian conflict.
As a nexus point between trans-Euphrates North and East Syria (NES) and the Kurdish-dominated regions of Afrin, Shehba, and the Aleppo neighborhoods of Sheikh Maqsud and Ashrafiyeh in Syria’s northwest, as well as housing Tishrin dam to the southwest of the city, Manbij is of crucial importance to the Autonomous Administration. Likewise, the Damascus government and Turkey eye Manbij as a likely target for invasion, due to the aforementioned location and Arab-majority population. Uniquely, Manbij is beset by a double frontline: to the north and west, the Turkish-backed ‘Syrian National Army’ (SNA) constantly threaten the region, with Turkey proper not 12km behind. On the southern flank, the government of Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia, seeks to widen its influence.
During the course of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, the Free Syrian Army controlled Manbij from July 2012 to the spring of 2013, when al-Qaeda offshoot al-Nusra Front took possession of the city. ISIS overran the region in January 2014 and remained in power until June 2016. During this time, Manbij served as the caliphate’s main marketplace for plundered antiquities, which were sent to the city and sold on to buyers in Turkey and the West. This lucrative business made up a large part of the group’s initial funding. Starting on May 31st, 2016, the newly-created Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Manbij Military Council (MMC) – a coalition of Manbij-native former FSA and Kurdish factions – liberated most of Manbij at great cost to their troops with the help of (US) Coalition forces. This initial sacrifice won the SDF, the MMC and the AANES widespread acclaim among the local population, who largely saw the soldiers as liberators.
Having been liberated the earliest – only a year after the defence of Kobane – Manbij region has seen the most reconstruction and development out of the four Arab-majority regions of NES (Manbij, Tabqa, Raqqa, and Deir ez-Zor). One of the Administrations greatest achievements has been the peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Manbij’s diverse communities, such as Kurds and Circassians, who had remained unrecognized and oppressed under both GoS and ISIS control, as well as the blending of its own democratic paradigm with an indigenous tribal system encompassing 64 different tribes. Women, too, have experienced autonomy and political freedoms unknown to them during the rule of Assad, let alone the years spent under brutal jihadi-salafist groups. The AANES has furthermore introduced multiple lasting civil structures, such as democratic assemblies and autonomous women’s institutions.
Yet problems were also soon apparent. Before ISIS rule, during the early stages of the Syrian Civil War, Manbij had elected its own democratic council and hosted Syria’s first independent trades union. Local activists complained that these gains were not restored, but rather replaced by the AANES’s own councils. The lack of adequate water and electricity provision due to Turkish-water blockage has also taken its toll. In addition, residents complain about high prices for fuel and other necessities compared to neighboring regions. Overall, a distrust of the new democratic paradigm is apparent among some residents.
Insurgents, SNA & Turkey
As with most of the Arab-majority regions, Manbij has experienced a spike of insurgency-style attacks following ISIS’ defeat, before the United States (US) withdrawal. The remnant of ISIS represent an ever-looming menace and it enjoys some popularity across certain parts of the Manbij countryside. Though less active than in other Arab regions of NES, ISIS sleeper cells are nevertheless present here. RIC recorded 8 confirmed sleeper cell attacks in Manbij in 2020.
Nonetheless, although US forces withdrew from the city in October 2019, local officials say Manbij has been relatively stable both before and after the Turkish 2019 invasion of northern Syria. Yet Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) militias in regions Turkey occupies in Al-Bab and Jarabulus often shell positions of the MMC, while the MMC regularly detains sleeper cell members with links to Turkish intelligence services and Turkish-backed militias. The fact that Turkey is looking to do more than destabilize the region is not a matter of conjecture. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had signaled Manbij as Turkey’s next target in Syria in 2019.
SAA & Russian Involvement
Following a 2019 SDF-Damascus agreement, Syrian Arab Army (SAA) troops numbering up to 10,000 have been deployed along the border; along the frontlines of the zone of Turkish occupation; in garrisons outside Manbij, Tabqa and Raqqa; and along supply lines leading from Damascus-controlled Syria up to the frontline with Turkey. SAA troops are banned from entering the cities themselves, and confined positions along the contact line outside Manbij and the Turkish border, and outside of the cities themselves.
MMC spokesman Sherwan Darwish told RIC that “coordination centers” have been set up with both Russian and SAA troops. Russian forces entered a former US base near Arima in October 2019 – formerly one of the Coalition’s largest – which has allowed “the same level of coordination” that the MMC enjoyed with the American forces. “Our joint efforts [with the Russians] have been positive,” Mr. Darwish said in 2020, while adding that locals remained fearful of further violence. Russia maintains three known military bases in Manbij region, all west of the city.
Yet the relationship between AANES and Damascus/Russia, if ever truly cooperative, has recently deteriorated. Officials in Manbij accuse the GoS of attempting to destabilize the region by inciting the Arab population, especially Arab tribes, to reject the AANES’ system. A recent US intelligence report suggests this might be true. Likewise, the relationship with Russia has soured, as AANES officials believe the superpower is colluding with Turkey to expel the SDF. In February 2021, Russia had pulled its troops out of neighboring Ayn Issa, on the frontline with SNA-occupied territory, because the SDF refused to let SAA troops in to defend against Turkish-backed attacks. Russia soon redeployed its soldiers, though the threat of a Russian withdrawal, which would allow for a Turkish advance, remains.
Nonetheless, Manbij – away from the frontlines – has so far remained relatively undisturbed. Visitors to the city are witness to rapid reconstruction (though perhaps not as rapid as neighboring Kobane) and a lively downtown. Yet beginning on May 31st, the region saw protests demanding and end to military conscription, as well an improvement of the economic situation.
Chronology of the Events of Early June 2021
A week after Syria’s presidential elections, during which the AANES had cut access from NES to SAR (territory under Bashar al-Assad’s rule), 25 people in the city of Manbij congregated for a protest after prayer, and many more in Hedhud, a village more sympathetic to Assad, 7km northeast of the city. There, a military vehicle was attacked by protesters, which lead to a death and three injuries as the soldiers inside opened fire. The The Manbij Military Council (MMC) and SAA both allege the vehicle was the other side’s.
In the aftermath of these casualties, nearby villages came together and marched on the NES military recruitment center in Tal Rafay, next to Hedhud, and scorched it, a security point, and a nearby car. MMC consequently imposed a 48-hour curfew.
On the internal border between SAR and NES at Tahya, a thousand of SAA troops amassed at the border, though not further action was taken.
East of the city, in Mashrafah, up to 500 people overran an Asayish checkpoint and set fire to surveillance cameras and a car. On Facebook, a person claiming to be a relative of the car owner alleges it was a civilian vehicle. Yet the car’s blue license plate reveals it to be a military vehicle. A firefight ensued as protesters stormed the checkpoint, which Asayish and GoS security forces share. The MMC told us they are unsure who began the shooting – whether protestors, the Asayish, or GoS scurity forces. In footage of the event, prolonged and heavy shooting can be heard from multiple weapons, though it is not visible who the shooters are. This firefight left 2 civilians dead and 15 injured.
Using the unrest as justification, Russian troops entered the city in violation of their agreement with the AANES. In a consequent firefight between Russian and SDF troops, one SDF soldier was injured.
In the aftermath of the morning’s protest, people congregated once more to march on the hospital in which the injured were being treated, smashing storefronts and surveillance cameras along the way, as well as throwing rocks at Asayish forces. Videos show Asayish forces retreating from protesters so as to prevent a confrontation.
The MMC releases a statement condemning the “criminal cells attack on security and military headquarters, receiving instructions from external parties, which resulted in casualties and injuries.”
The Manbij administration met with tribal elders, who put forward a 3-point plan to end the protests. The demands were the halting of military conscription for the inhabitants of Manbij region, the release of some prisoners (including some arrested before the protests), and establishing an investigative committee to make clear what transpired. Special Forces (HAT) were deployed to the city.
The MMC allege that agitators connected to the GoS attempted to further incite mourners during funeral prosceedings.
In a press statement, the AANES’ Tribal Council called for peace and blamed the Damascus government for “wanting to fuel unrest in Manbij in the wake of the election, to destabilize the region.”
Tribal sheikhs and notables put together a list of 17 demands and submit them to the Civil Administration of Manbij. They are:
1. The need to satisfy the families of the wounded and martyrs materially and morally, and to hold the soldiers who attacked peaceful demonstrators accountable by a fair and public trial
2. Abolition of compulsory conscription in Manbij region and end to conscription of young men in all regions of northeastern Syria
3. Cancellation of the customs value on all pharmaceutical and medical supplies
4. Installing all the teachers’ agents and securing school supplies for the success of the educational process
5. Stop arbitrary arrest and limit it to the court’s decision, and inform the detainee’s family about the place of his arrest and the crime against him within a week of the period of his arrest
6. Ending the work of the political police and the phenomenon of masked soldiers
7. Effectively activating the role of the Health Committee, according to competencies, following up on drug prices, and securing medication for chronic diseases for free
8. Securing fuel and domestic gas and distributing electrical energy in a fair manner
9. Improve the material of bread and increase its quantity, knowing that at the present time it is not suitable for human consumption
10. Preventing the army from roaming with their weapons between residential communities and not using them as shields for them in the border areas
11. Facilitating the work of humanitarian organizations in Manbij and working with them to compensate the owners of buildings damaged as a result of the hostilities
12. Returning confiscated property, homes and real estate to their owners
13. Return of the people of the town of Al-Shuyoukh to their homes, properties and lands
14. Compensating the owners of buildings that were intentionally demolished by bulldozers in the recent hostilities
15. Return the documents confiscated by the SDF to their owners
16. Considering the guarantee valid without a specific period of time and reducing the burden of renewing it on citizens
17. Repeal all laws that conflict with Islamic law, such as the penalty for polygamy and inheritance
As a result, conscription was temporarily halted across NES. A 20-member higher committee to discuss the 17 points was assembled, including a representative each of the MMC, the Manbij Civil Council, the Legislative Council, the Asayish, the Committee of Religious Affairs, the Intellectuals’ Union, the Reconciliation Committee, and an elder chosen by the tribes, as well as the 12 representatives of the tribes. After almost two weeks of deliberations, the tribal leaders could not agree on the staffing of an investigative committee. Thus, the investigations will carry on without tribal involvement. Nevertheless, the full demands will be discussed by all parties in the higher committee.
In the week following the protests, a series of roadside IEDs led to a death and one injury among NES security forces. Since the protests, and especially in the past week (of late June 2021), the front with Turkish-backed SNA has seen a sudden spike in violence. The SNA has shelled various towns north of Manbij, as well launched recurrent land assaults against the region, which have all been repelled. The reason for this escalation is heretofore unknown, though some analysts have speculated that Manbij may be the sight of a coming invasion.
Fact box: understanding the tribal system in NES
The tribal system is crucial for understanding the situation in the Arab regions of NES, since the tribes constitute the main building-block of local society. They are top-down and patriarchal in structure, with loyalty to the tribe and bloodline superseding other concerns, resulting in frequent and deadly feuds between tribes. Some tribes are close to the GoS, while others have long had an antagonistic relationship with the central government.
Particularly following the collapse of central government in Syria, tribes have played a key role as local power-brokers, maintaining their own armed forces and providing for their members, though ultimately most tribes have been forced to bow to more powerful state and non-state actors as they have gained and regained control over the tribes’ traditional territory. Weakness and competition within the tribal structure left the population extremely vulnerable to exploitation by jihadi Salafism, although ISIS was ultimately unable to rally lasting support from the tribes.
Tribes are a fact of life in Arab regions like Deir ez-Zor. Despite their top-down, patriarchal structure and conservative outlook, they can also play an important role in promoting ideas of local self-determination and community justice which are prioritized by AANES. In Manbij, representatives of the tribes sit in the executive, legislative and justice councils. If the AANES can bring tribal sheikhs onside, they will have a much easier time governing these challenging regions. Due to their size, many tribes have several components, and keep their cards close to their chest by negotiating with both the AANES and the GoS. Yet some tribal leaders are also persecuted and unable to return to GoS because of their cooperation with the AANES.
Tribes occupying the hinterland between Kurdish-majority and Arab-majority territories have helped to ensure continued practical contact between the GoS and AANES to keep utilities and oil flowing, while some major tribal militias (notably the al-Sanadid forces) have long been allied with SDF against ISIS and Turkey.
All institutions RIC spoke to in Manbij said the Tribal Council was critical in ending the recent protests. In Manbij, the 12 largest tribes sit in this council, out of a total of 64, though the two largest tribes, Bou Sultan and Bou Bena, have historically closer ties to Damascus and have a strained relationship with the Administration.
RIC spoke to multiple institutions on the ground. MMC, Asayish and the SDF’s Military Conscription Office told us the conscription issue was used as a pretext for protests which were about economic issues, though also instigated by outside forces. The Damascus government, especially, they said, is using NES’ comparatively weak economic situation to sow discontent among the population. Conscription has been practiced in Manbij since 2017. The attempt at forcing the Administration to halt military conscription from among Manbij and other Arab areas is because “outside forces do not want the people to feel attached to this political project, they don’t want them to be able to defend themselves,” as per an official at the Conscription Office. He pointed out that, if Manbij were to come under Damascus’ control, more rather than less of its citizens would be forced into military service. Meanwhile, an Asayish official alleged that unspecified sleeper cells storm into houses in Manbij dressed in their uniforms in order to evoke hatred for the Asayish. All three institutions told us the people of Manbij have been disillusioned by what they see as the Damascus government’s apparent effort to manufacture discontent.
We also spoke with the leaders of Manbij’s largest tribes. They say their tribesmen are in fact worried by military conscription, as this interferes with many young men’s education, business and marriage. The root cause, they say, is that the presence of the AANES is still perceived to be temporary. “The Administration cannot provide Manbij’s residents with national identity cards or passports,” says one sheikh. Parents are thus reluctant to let their sons serve in their armed forces and lose the opportunity to access GoS services if the region were to come under Damascus’ control once again. If they can, parents send their children to GoS universities, but the AANES does not waive military service for students enrolled in these universities. In addition, the tribal elders tell us the people of Manbij tend to marry younger, and resent the fact that newly-wed young men must spent time apart from their wives. They also bring up the fact that, for families with only one son, having him conscripted can be detrimental to their business. “Solving the issue of conscription,” the tribal leaders tell us, “is the most important thing.”
Nevertheless, other factors do play a role. Manbij citizens were angered by AANES’ recent price increases for fuel and gas, though these were quickly walked back after widespread condemnation. Yet the cost of Diesel and cement remains high, compared not just to when Manbij was under GoS control, but also to neighboring areas of NES, where these goods are cheaper. “Cement goes for $140/t in Manbij, but only $115/t in Raqqa,” one sheikh told us. The tribes also reiterated the people’s other main demands: the release of prisoners held for unknown charges, having those killed be declared martyrs, and an official apology.
Yet the tribal leaders also pointed to outside interference. Of Manbij’s 64 tribes, 2 in particular are close to Damascus – Bou Sultan and Bou Bena. It is from these tribes, the leaders told us, that the protesters come from. Their homelands stretch east and south of Manbij city. Bou Soultan, in particular, is centered around Hedhud, the sight of the first major demonstration. “70% of the problems have been resolved,” one of the Council’s sheikhs said, “but they [Damascus] use the persistent problems to destabilize.” Disinformation plays a considerable role. For instance, one of the 17 demands outlined by the protesters called for revoking laws which conflict with the Islamic Shari’a, highlighting polygamy. Yet polygamy – a practice banned in the Kurdish areas of NES – is perfectly legal in the Arab areas, save for persons working in the AANES or their armed forces. Rather than betraying the Administration’s authoritarian intentions, the current legal status of polygamy in Manbij is a testament to the AANES’ democratic attempts to marry traditional local practices with their vision of women’s liberation. Similarly, contrary to the popular opinion, the MMC’s long-standing policy is that young men from families with only one male offspring are not conscripted into military service.
The rise of Damascus-linked sleeper cells has been a common denominator across all of NES’ Arab regions. Asayish officials in Ayn Issa tell RIC that the GoS is playing similar games in their city. For the moment, Manbij exists in a delicate tension between Damascus, Moscow, and Ankara. Both the GoS, as well as Turkey would like Manbij to come under its control. Russian and the SAR are unlikely to let Manbij fall into the hands of the SNA, though the sudden pull-out of Russian troops out of Ayn Issa in February demonstrates that they are not above gambling on the AANES’ fear of another Turkish incursion. All parties, including ISIS, see Manbij as ground ripe for intrigue and popular revolt. It is therefore likely that these outside influences will continue to effect sometimes violent rejections of the current democratic system. As we publish this piece, local protests are staged in the wake of every Friday prayer, demanding the SDF leave Manbij – most likely, internal sources tell RIC, at the behest of Turkey.
Nevertheless, it is also worth noting that, for all of the Administration’s shortcomings both before and during the protests, the number of people who took to the streets in the first week of June 2021 were anything but representative of Manbij as a whole. As previously stated, most protesters seemed to belong to one of the two defiant tribes. It is also worth pointing out that women, for the most part, did not participate. More importantly, in the aftermath of these protests, the AANES hosted a public dialogue, and continues to be involved in the investigative committee, as well as the higher committee to address the people’s demands, proving their commitment to a democratic resolution.
Invariably, the greatest hurdle facing the AANES’ democratic paradigm is the lack of belief in its longevity. Outside interference and attacks, even if not able to conquer the region, nevertheless disturb people’s confidence in the current political system. RIC finds a closer collaboration with tribal leaders is necessary, not only because they played a crucial role in ending the protests, acting as the bridge between the people and the Administration, but also because their sacrifice – some having lost their lives to ISIS sleeper-cell attacks, others persecuted in SAR for their involvement with the AANES – can be essential in instilling much-needed faith in the current political project.