SDF fighter at Manbij battlefront. Photo: ARA News
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KOBANE – US anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk confirmed that after liberating Manbij from the Islamic State (ISIS), the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) will focus on taking Northern Raqqa.
In a press conference on Saturday, McGurk explained the ongoing operation in Manbij, and future operations to isolate Raqqa. “I just can’t put a timeline on any of the operations for Raqqa and Mosul. Raqqa will be extremely difficult, but I think we have a pretty good plan after Manbij to organize these local actors, Arab fighters to move down and to isolate Raqqa,” McGurk said about the SDF.
ISIS spokesperson Mohammed al Adnani also confirmed three weeks ago that they could lose Raqqa, suggesting that ISIS was only expanding territory. “He actually said, you know, we might lose Raqqa, we might lose Mosul — which they will — and we might lose Sirte, but we’re still going to be around so come join us anyway. It’s kind of a very different message than what we were hearing, and I think it’s one that is not quite as appealing to their potential recruits. So the morale is plummeting, they’re executing their own fighters,” McGurk said.
Moreover, McGurk confirmed the US was behind pressuring the Iraqi Kurdish administration to open the Syrian border to provide aid to Manbij.
“We just reopened the border with the Kurdistan region of Iraq and into northern Syria to get a lot of this humanitarian relief flowing in. That border is open for humanitarian trade, primarily for this reason — to make sure that as areas are liberated from ISIL, the resources can be there to help people,” he said, using another acronym for ISIS.
The US anti-ISIS envoy stressed the importance of liberating the ISIS-held 98-kilometers strip of border with Turkey. “This is very important because it is the last strip of border it controls. Turkey has done a great job in kind of sealing off the area on the Turkish side of the border, but until we take the territory away in Syria, we still remain vulnerable,” he added.
From Manbij to Europe
Moreover, the American official suggested that Manbij is where the US-led coalition believes that the Paris attackers, the Brussel attackers, pulse through, from Raqqa to Manbij, and then to Europe to carry out attacks. “So we have to work with forces on the ground to close out this area,” he said.
McGurk said the priority for the US is to work with the Syrian Democratic Forces and local people to liberate their own territory.
“And it is based upon a core principle that we set when we developed this strategy, and this was fundamental to the President, fundamental to our DOD campaign plan, and also the diplomatic strategy: We want local people who know the local area to organize and liberate their areas,” he said.
“We don’t want, obviously, American troops going into the streets and alleys of these towns. We want local people with local knowledge to liberate their own territory,” he emphasized.
Arabs lead the fight
According to McGurk the Manbij operation is led by the 3,500 fighters of the Manbij Military Council, with 3,000 of them local Arabs of Manbij.
“I met some of their leaders when I was in Kobani, and I’ve met them elsewhere. And they launched an operation about a week ago and crossed the Euphrates River here in what some of our Special Forces who work with these guys have said is one of the most complex military maneuvers they’ve seen in some time,” he said.
“And they did it under fire. They’ve taken casualties. In fact, one of the main leaders of this organization, of the military council, his name was Abu Layla, someone that I also met, was killed in the operation. They’ve now named this operation after him, and they’ve continued to advance,” he said in praise of the forces.
“They continue to advance so rapidly that Manbij is now almost entirely surrounded. And once Manbij is taken away from ISIL, it will really entirely cut off their ability to move from Raqqa and to move fighters, and to threaten us and to threaten our partners and our homelands,” he said again.
“So it’s a very important operation. It launched about a week ago. There was months of work that went into it. They still have some ways to go, but we’re focused on it and it is critically important. And once we’re in there, we think the amount of information we’re able to get about ISIL, about the leadership networks will be very important for further unraveling it.”
No timeline for Manbij liberation
“But Manbij, you’re right — so we’ve kind of — completing the encirclement, and now the very difficult phase of actually liberating the city will begin. And I don’t want to put a timeline on that, but we are working with local actors who have local knowledge and pooling the resources as best we can to make sure that we get the stabilization piece right, he said.
Nevertheless, he confirmed they will not work with the Syrian regime to take Raqqah. “We are not going to work with the Assad regime. Period. And so it presents different challenges than Iraq,” he said.
“But if you look at what we’ve done in terms of clearing out all this territory, I think we’ve hit on a formula that works. Manbij will be a big test. It will be one of the most strategic blows to ISIL yet because it is their hub of foreign fighters. It is their main kind of access route from Raqqa. And so I suspect they will fight for it. But we feel pretty good about the plan — not only the military plan, but importantly the post-ISIL plan,” the envoy said.
Moving towards Raqqa
“And what we’re doing to move down on Raqqa is recruiting and increasing the number of Arab fighters in their own territories. So obviously, we have people on the ground helping to do that training. And so far we think that is going quite well,” he added.
“Raqqa, of course, remains their kind of their headquarters, and we think a lot of their leaders are still there, although fewer than there were. And as I said, we’re continuing to target those leaders in Raqqa,” he said.
“But, most importantly, the reason that the President made the decision to send additional Special Forces to Syria — going from 50 to 300 — is because we think we’ve hit on a formula that works — again, organizing local people to take the fight to ISIL combined with air support and combined with hard, kind of local political work that we’re doing. It works,” he concluded.
Reporting by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg
Source: ARA News