Drawn to northern Syria by their mutual hostility toward ISIS, a growing number of state and non-state actors have coalesced. Nominally united against ISIS, the forces are finding themselves ever more divided along several lines, with the city of Manbij, a former ISIS hotbed, now a battlefield for everyone but ISIS.
A city of around 100,000 people on the Euphrates River, Manbij was attacked by the Kurdish YPG last year, in a protracted, US-backed offensive aimed at expelling ISIS from it. Though it was slow going, the YPG ultimately won, and that’s about the time Turkey got really mad.
Turkey, which has argued ISIS and the YPG are basically the same thing, slammed the US for letting the Kurds take the city, and demanded that no Kurds be allowed west of the Euphrates River. In August, Turkey invaded Syria outright, seizing the city of Jarabulus immediately to the north, before rampaging through the rest of ISIS-held territory in Aleppo. When the last ISIS city fell, Turkey announced Manbij was next.
At the same time thing was going on, Syrian forces, backed by Russia, were making inroads against al-Qaeda forces in the battle for the city of Aleppo and the surrounding area. When they finally won that battle, they advanced east too, toward Manbij.
By last weekend, Russia brokered a deal with the YPG and Syria, where Syiia would ring Manbij with defensive forces, Russia embedded troops with Syria, and the US embedded troops in Manbij with the YPG. All this and Turkey set a serious powderkeg, and with Turkey already shelling Syrian troops, it’s almost certain to explode.
The value of Manbij isn’t just in the city itself, but in providing a route toward the ISIS capital of Raqqa. Everybody wants to attack ISIS, and everyone wants to be the first to Raqqa. Getting there, however, likely means going through other anti-ISIS forces.