OPINION

YPG flag in Manbij / Unknown

14/08/2016 - 14:28 0
The Manbij Battle, a Blueprint for Raqqa?

After 73 days of fierce fighting, the battle of Manbij has been won by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Manbij Military Council (MMC) fighters, a multiethnic force of Kurds, Arabs & Assyrians battling Islamic State (IS/ISIS) in northern Syria and backed by the US-led coalition. It's so far the biggest defeat for ISIS in Syria and also a validation of the US strategy in this country.

Manbij was important for several reasons. Firstly, after Gire Spi fell[1] (Tell Abyad), the town was the main supply route for ISIS from Turkey. It is believed that Manbij was a hub for foreign fighters entering in or exiting the so-called caliphate[2]. Now, there is only one road between ISIS and the world: the one via Al Bab.

Manbij was also important because it is a large town, 100 000 inhabitants before the start of the Syrian civil war but also large by size (around 21km²). Before Manbij, SDF had never fought for such a large area of land. Former victories in Gire Spi or Shaddadi were for medium sized towns of 30-50000 people on 3-5km².  Manbij is also on the path for Kurds to connect the canton of Afrin to the two other cantons in Kobanê and Qamislo, which is their most important objective. By liberating Manbij, they have proven once again they are most important force in northern Syria. Also Manbij is a multiethnic town and it was seen as a test, as some pro-rebels analysts were claiming that most Arabs would join ISIS in order to defeat the Kurds within the SDF.

So let's see how the battle unfolded.

The first movement of the battle actually started much earlier than the final operation, on 27th December 2015, when SDF forces crossed the Euphrates just after seizing the Tishreen Dam[3]. They had set up a small bridgehead (emplacement) mainly for protecting the dam from ISIS artillery. This small position (only a few km²) would be attacked many times by ISIS. The fact that ISIS could not expel SDF forces in 6 months from this weak position between Manbij & Raqqa speaks a lot about their weakness and also shows the strength of the SDF-Coalition alliance. Overall between the end of the Tishreen battle and the start of the Manbij operation, the US-led coalition conducted 140 airstrikes on the Manbij area.

Coalition airstrikes against ISIS near Manbij

Dec-15

Jan-16

Feb-16

Mar-16

Apr-16

May-16

47

50

22

21

28

56

Turkey attempted to prevent the Kurdish led offensive by trying to separate Arabs forces from the Kurdish ones[4] but the tense situation with Russia and the town being out of the range of their artillery meant their attempts lacked political and military weight.

Even though the Manbij battle started officially on 31 May 2016, a quite elaborate but deceptive one had preceded the operation. The spokesperson of the SDF had claimed that they were going to launch a major 3-pronged operation towards Raqqa (which is the so-called capital of the caliphate)[5]. They even captured some villages south of Ain Issa (part of Raqqa).

Mostly this operation was aimed at hiding the massive concentration of SDF troops (several thousand fighters) and vehicles near Tishreen. The coalition even dropped leaflets on Raqqa saying that the liberation would start soon[6]!

On the first three days before the offensive, the US-led coalition wiped out ISIS’ entire first line of defence by destroying 72 objectives near the bridgehead, allowing SDF to immediately expand its control. The coalition’s activity would remain high during the first month with 264 airstrikes (the record for an area in one month since the start of the anti-ISIS war) destroying hundreds of objectives in the countryside.

Compared to what we are used to in the Syrian civil war, the SDF strategy was quite complex. They executed a 3-pinch maneuver during the first phase of the battle (31 May to 18th June):

  • The first one aimed at enlarging the bridgehead
  • The second involved crossing the Euphrates near Sarrin (15km in the north) and then the cleansing of the area between these two starting points.
  • The third one aimed at isolating Manbij for any external reinforcements with 2-pinch, one in the north blocking Jarablus and then turning to the left and a second one in the south cutting Al Bab and Raqqa roads.

There was a drawback during the first days of the battle however as one the most famous SDF commanders, Abu Leyla, was killed. As a response the SDF changed the name of the operation to "Martyr commander Abu Leyla"[7].

To counter the encirclement by SDF and MMC fighters, ISIS removed some units from the Al Rai front (around 50km in the west) but without success. In less than 3 weeks, 900km² and around 210 villages and hamlets were liberated with the SDF arriving at the gates of the town on 18 June.

The second phase of the operation (the liberation of Manbij town), was as hard as the first phase (liberation of countryside) was easy. The SDF and MMC surrounded the city in two rings to defend around 100km of additional frontlines. Thousands of fighters participated in the rings to counter ISIS’ counteroffensive. And ISIS did try to break the siege several times. They even managed to take back some villages,[8] but were not able to keep them for long.

As the bulk of SDF forces were in Manbij, ISIS also tried to attack other fronts south of Sarrin or Ain Issa, also without any success.

For the SDF, taking such a big town without heavy artillery or tanks was to be long and costly. As usual, the whole city was booby-trapped with IEDS, entrenched snipers and VBIEDs to slow down the SDF advance.

SDF and MMC fighters had to cleanse buildings one by one, often at night to avoid snipers. ISIS also held around 60 000 civilians who they used as humans shield[9] to prevent the coalition’s aerial support.  Despite what some pro-rebel analysts claimed, the overwhelming majority of Manbij’s inhabitants fled towards SDF lines as soon they could, often being targeted by ISIS snipers[10].  However, several NGO's reported the death of civilians after a coalition airstrike in the north of the town left dozens of civilians dead[11]. This event prompted every anti-Kurdish force in Syria and Turkey to protest against the US-led coalition’s aerial support[12]. That being said, time was on the side of SDF and MMC forces, as ISIS fighters’ food stock and ammo began to thin, the liberationist forces bided their time.

The SDF attacked the town first from the south and the west, mainly because ISIS had prepared their defence lines more heavily in the north and east, but also because the best assault teams were in the southwest. The offensive then continued with several attacks in the southeastern and northeastern neighborhoods. At end of the July, after several weeks of fighting, the SDF managed to cut ISIS forces in two after a decisive push towards the eastern part of the town centre. ISIS defensive lines collapsed and almost 30% of the town was liberated in just a week.

After 2 and half months (73 days), overwhelmed by an enemy superior on every level, ISIS’s most resounding defeat in Syria (after Kobanê) happened. Tens of thousands were freed and joyous images of men shaving, women smoking and burning burqas were recorded. The coalition also collected 4.5TB of digital data for intelligence purposes[13].

It can be said that ISIS lost initiative to the Kurds almost 2 years ago and now it will not be able to defend its last pocket on the Turkish border.

The coalition played a major role in the liberation of Manbij, more than we are used to. At least 400 French and American Special Forces operators were dispatched to the field[14] [15] coordinating directly the close air support, intelligence and ammos supplies. Overall, the coalition conducted more than 648 airstrikes on Manbij making it the most targeted town in June, July and August.

Finally, the perfect execution of the triple pinch maneuver was probably planned by US strategists and is one of the most under-estimated contributions by the US to the war so far. The fast victory, the low loss of life (compared to the size of the victory) on the SDF-MMC side (around 500 killed) and the global feeling that operations are being carried out professionally and successfully after the striking victories in Sarrin, Shaddadi and now Manbij, and the disastrous train and equip program for rebels funded by the US, will probably show US decision-makers that they have got the perfect blueprint for the Raqqa liberation.

Manbij campaign in numbers:

Started 31 May, finished 12 August 2016: 73 days

900km² liberated

204 villages and hamlets liberated

150000 civilians rescued

648 airstrikes

At least 3000 ISIS fighters killed

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[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/16/kurdish-fighters-cut-key-supply-line-to-islamic-state-capital-raqqa

[2] http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/arab-civilians-welcome-overthrowing-isis-rule-near-manbij-1106140524

[3] http://www.voanews.com/content/kurdish-forces-battle-islamic-state-control-tishrin-dam-syria/3135563.html

[4] http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-has-two-demands-from-us-for-support-in-manbij-operation-sources-.aspx?PageID=238&NID=97246&NewsCatID=352

[5] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/05/syria-raqqa-sdf-160524134816769.html

[6] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/20/coalition-drops-leaflets-over-raqqa-telling-residents-to-flee-ah/

[7] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/top-syrian-kurdish-commander-abu-layla-killed-by-isis-sniper-fire-a7066651.html

[8] http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-mideast-crisis-syria-manbij-idUKKCN0ZK0SH

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IjUaMmeOwsY

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8aHxydvb3M

[11] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/07/21/an-airstrike-in-syria-killed-entire-families-instead-of-isis-fighters/

[12] http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/2016/07/28/thousands-protest-outside-us-base-incirlik-turkey/87665750/

[13] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/28/world/middleeast/us-intelligence-isis.html?_r=0

[14] http://www.rfi.fr/moyen-orient/20160609-syrie-france-defense-terrorisme-ei-forces-speciales-francaises

[15] http://edition.cnn.com/2016/04/24/politics/obama-special-operations-syria/


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