August 16, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State Loses Manbij
After two months of sustained fighting, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fully liberated the vital city of Manbij in northern Syria. The city had served for more than two years as the processing center for incoming and outgoing foreign fighters of the so-called Islamic State. Manbij also served as a gateway from Turkey for importing supplies and exporting terror through the group’s external operations branch. The Islamic State’s loss of Manbij is among the group’s most significant losses in the two years since the efforts of the anti-Islamic State coalition began in earnest.
The loss of Manbij—which sets the stage for the campaign to retake the group’s capital of Raqqa 70 miles to the southeast—is more than a major military defeat for the Islamic State. It is an intelligence gold mine for the U.S. and other countries scrambling to better assess the threat posed by foreign fighters sent back to Europe and elsewhere by the Islamic State. As the last year of external attacks has demonstrated, the Islamic State has worked to ensure its terror capabilities extend far beyond the borders of its self-proclaimed caliphate, and will persist even if Raqqa is lost. Like any large organization, terror groups require paperwork and bureaucracy to function, and it is likely that coalition forces will find Manbij to be of immense tactical and strategic intelligence value.
The loss of Manbij also presents several serious geopolitical concerns. While there is an Arab component to the SDF, it remains primarily a Kurdish fighting force that is backed by the U.S., including U.S. advisors and trainers on the ground. Over the last year and a half, Kurdish forces have been the most effective anti-Islamic State forces in both Syria and Iraq. In Syria, Kurdish victories have led to a de facto and highly contentious Kurdish zone of relative autonomy. This has created tensions with neighboring Turkey, and those tensions will only increase with the liberation of Manbij, which will connect zones of Kurdish-controlled territory on both sides of the Euphrates.
It is difficult to overstate Turkish objections to a Kurdish area of control along its border. Ankara views the Kurdish issue as more critical than the fight against the Islamic State, or even the removal of the Assad regime. Turkish planes have conducted airstrikes against Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) camps in Iraq for years; the U.S. has designated the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization, but is working closely with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey also considers a terrorist group. As the Kurds continue to make gains near the border, Turkey could decide to conduct airstrikes against YPG forces, which presents obvious concerns given the presence of embedded U.S. troops.
While Turkey and Iran disagree on the Syrian civil war and the future of the Assad regime, they share a common concern over any autonomous Kurdish region near their borders. With an estimated 6.7 million Kurdish citizens, Iran has long had concerns over a possible independent Kurdistan in northeastern Iraq. Though the likelihood that a fully independent Iraqi Kurdistan would incite Iranian Kurds to call for independence is rather low, Tehran would prefer to avoid the situation altogether. In Turkey, tensions are abysmal between the more than 11 million Kurds in the country and the central government, and only getting worse. Of the many complicated and competing self-interests of the numerous parties involved in the Syrian civil war, Turkish concerns and reactions to a growing Kurdish area of control inside Syria rank among the most problematic dynamics of the conflict.
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