On al-Bab and Sides in Syria’s Conflict

manbij-afrin

Here is a map for the benefit of those who are confused about who controls what territory from the Euphrates to the Amanos mountains in the north of Syria.

The yellow areas in the right of the map is the recently liberated Manbij and its countryside. Until six months ago, Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG) and the Kurd-Arab umbrella organisation it belongs to, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), were firmly on the east bank of the Euphrates.

In a two month long campaign, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is represented in purple, was dislodged from Manbij and was forced to retreat first to Jarablus, which is in the north of Manbij and later to al-Bab to the west of Manbij.

On the left side of the map is the Kurdish enclave of Afrin which we hear little about. The Afrin canton is also protected by the YPG and allied Arabs but its greatest advantage is relatively homogeneous Kurdish inhabitants and the mountainous terrain. The Syrian civil war has not affected those areas significantly yet.

What Kurds want is to link Manbij in the east with the Afrin canton about 100 Kms to the west so they can have a single contiguous zone along almost the entire length of Turkish-Syria border. This is necessary in order to cut off ISIS from the outside world but also to make Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) whole again.

In the Kurds’ way are, apart from ISIS, two other forces in the Syrian civil conflict. The Assad government’s Syrian Arab Army (green) and the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA in brown). The regime and the rebels have long been battling over Aleppo with neither side able to inflict decisive blow.

The key town that all sides want to control at the moment is al-Bab. It is a Kurdish populated town that is currently held by ISIS which is on the run. The SDF want it because it will unite the cantons. FSA want it because it will open a new front to attack government held districts of Aleppo. The Assad regime are unable or unwilling to launch an offensive to capture it.

What Turkey wants is to get in the Kurds’ way. So Ankara has bought a gang of FSA rebel mercenaries and helped them to capture Jarablus first and now wants them to move to al-Bab. It is likely that they will not go for Manbij because the rebels don’t have the numbers to take it or to even hold it for long.

As of this moment, there are conflicting reports coming from all sides as the Turkish-backed military advance continues. One thing is clear: the areas represented on the map with al-Bab at the centre is where most of the future conflict in Syria will take place.

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