U.S.-backed militias in Syria have surrounded the Islamic State-held city of Manbij from three sides as they press an offensive against the militants near the Turkish border, a spokesman for the fighters said on Monday.
The Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), including the powerful Kurdish YPG militia and Arab allies, launched the attack last week with the ultimate aim of driving out Islamic State (ISIS) from its last foothold at the Syrian-Turkish frontier.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the U.S.-backed militias had cut the road north from Manbij to Islamic State-held Jarabulus at the Turkish border, which is also expected to be targeted.
Sharfan Darwish, spokesman for the Manbij Military Council, said the U.S.-backed alliance had advanced to within 6 km (4 miles) of Manbij, and the attack backed by U.S. special forces was going to plan. Over 150 ISIS militants had been killed, with 50 of the bodies in SDF hands, he said.
“If we had wanted to reach (Manbij) before this time, or if we wanted to arrive directly, we could have, but as you know the area is vast and there are a large number of civilians,” he said. “Our forces are surrounding Manbij from three directions.”
He said there were dead among the SDF and the number would be announced later. They included the commander of one of the groups, Faysal Abu Layla of the Sun of the North Battalions. He had died of wounds caused by a mortar bomb.
Kurdish Militias Role
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attacking forces were less than 4 km from Manbij at the closest point. Its director, Rami Abdulrahman, said 56 IS members had been killed so far, and 19 SDF fighters had died.
He said ISIS fighters had sent their families out of Manbij, but disputed Darwish’s account that ISIS fighters had also left the city. Darwish said many homes being used by IS members were now empty as they had left with their families. “They took everything they could and left the city,” he said.
“Manbij will fall, but the time frame is linked to events and developments,” Darwish said.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday the U.S.-backed offensive was largely being carried out by Arab rather than Kurdish fighters, in a sign of tacit approval for the operation.
The Syria Democratic Forces alliance includes the Kurdish YPG militia, which Turkey views as a terrorist organization and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party militant group (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey’s southeast.
However, the Syrians aren’t optimistic about this military operations, as the Kurdish militias are part of the forces.
Syrians accuse the Kurdish militias of committing ethnic crimes agaisnt the Arabs in northern Syria and making demographic change there.
The Kurdish militias attacked many Arabic villages and towns in the past months under the term of fighting ISIS and forces the citizens out, adding more areas to their control and paving the way to the autonomy declaration after the federalism was announced earlier this year.