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In Northern Syria, Residents Balk at Turkish Threats

A snap election in Turkey, announced earlier this month, briefly put residents of Northern Syria on edge ahead of a threatened incursion by Turkish forces. Now, it's back to life-as-usual.
A man walks in the open air market in Manbij, northern Syria, on March 28th, 2018.

A man walks in the open air market in Manbij, northern Syria, on March 28th, 2018.

MANBIJ, SYRIA — Darkness arrived on the Syrian soldiers' front line, carrying with it a worrisome crescendo: Fears of the Turkish and Free Syrian Army troops stationed nearest them, some 20 yards away; fears of the bullets that would inevitably come zinging toward them; fears of death.

One of those Syrian soldiers, Khalid Husain, stood in his trench and watched as Free Syrian Army fighters, backed by Turkey, advanced on their redoubt. He was one of four young men in the trench; there were another five at an observation point not far behind.

"Some of us didn't have weapons to use for defense," Husain, 21, tells me, some weeks after the skirmish. "We tried giving a warning signal to the American and Special Operations Forces by firing a single gunshot, but they did not come to back us up."

They survived the brief clash, the latest in a string of such battles that collectively underscore the feelings of restiveness in this Syrian city ahead of Turkish elections next month, which arrive at a time when Syria's northerly neighbor has threatened cities and the people living within them.

"I am one of many guys who fought in the Manbij campaign," Husain says. "I am used to fighting. I don't fear."

Fearlessness will prove useful in the coming months as the international coalition stakes its claim in Syria's northern region (known among Kurdish nationalists as Rojava) while neighboring countries are vying for their own slice of Syria.

In May, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced snap elections slated for June 24th. In addresses to his supporters, Erdoğan vowed a takeover of Northern Syria, part of an ongoing incursion into a nation that is plagued by a seven-year civil war and proxy battles between Russia and the United States, and Iran and Israel.

Emboldened by his cross-border offensive and victory in ousting American-backed Kurdish forces from the Syrian city of Afrin, Erdoğan's operations aim to oust the Kurdish Workers Party, which Turkey lists as a terrorist organization.

Analysts suggest Turkey's military campaign to disband the Kurds from Rojava is motivated primarily by politics. The thinking goes that, by engaging in fighting against the Kurds, Erdoğan will rouse his political base at home, strengthening his nationalist agenda and supporters who dislike the American presence in Syria.

As the battle between Kurdish People's Protection Units (also known as the YPG) forces in Northern Syria and a growing Turkish military presence, fighters and residents in Manbij and Kobani, the two front-line cities in Syria that regularly suffer shellings and sniper fire from across the border with Turkey, tell me they don't feel threatened.

"I am not afraid if Turkey attacks," Hussain says. "I don't fear. The American forces trained us on how to use our weapons and work with discipline. But they couldn't teach us how to not fear, because that depends on one's courage."

Kurdish militias here have vowed to massacre Turkish troops if they continue encroaching on the Rojava region in northern Syria, which is primarily Kurdish though there exist pockets of Erdoğan regime forces. Though the YPG fighting forces withdrew from Afrin, forces have amassed inside Qamishil and Kobani, readying for increased fighting.

Vehicles of U.S.-backed coalition forces drive in Manbij, northern Syria, on April 3rd, 2018.

Vehicles of U.S.-backed coalition forces drive in Manbij, northern Syria, on April 3rd, 2018.

American and French troops occupy Manbij, ignoring requests by Turkey to vacate the redoubt they believe is home to terrorists. American troops, who have fought alongside Kurds in Syria and Iraq in their coalition against the Islamic State, flatly refused, spurring a potential conflict between North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.

For the Western troops aligned with the Syrian Democratic Forces, which encompasses the YPG, this is the farthest American presence: after Turkish threats, some of the roughly 2,000 troops in the country built a fortified outpost along the frontline, proudly displaying the American flag.

Once an enclave overrun by the Islamic State, Manbij, a city of at least 300,000 (the last census was taken in 2004 and many internally displaced persons have since come from Aleppo, Palmyra, and elsewhere across Syria), now appears lively and thriving.

Cars careen through the streets as shops fill with mushabak, great spirals of fried dough bubbling in vats of oil. Some homes, reduced to rubble by American airstrikes targeting ISIS militants, are scattered throughout the otherwise vibrant Arab-dominant city east of Aleppo and west of the Euphrates River.

"If the Turkish army tries to attack us, this city will fall into chaos," says Khamis Mohammed, 42, a shop owner near one of the confectionary stalls. "As a fact, as long as America is here, Turkey cannot do anything."

But relying on American intervention has been to the detriment of many nations, though some residents of Manbij say they feel the city is safe, and that Turkish rhetoric is all bluster and no action.

"Our situation is good now. We are satisfied with it. We don't want to change it, neither to a better nor to a worse situation," says Ahmad Abdul Latif, 38, a restaurant owner in Manbij. "We don't need to go to war with anyone or to fight among ourselves."

Abdul Latif lived in Raqqa, Tabaha, Maskanah, and Kobani before arriving in Manbij. His family has a home in Palmyra, which was flattened by airstrikes. "Only its land is left," he says. "I want to sell the land and buy a new house in Manbij and stay here."

Lands of Metamorphosis is a month-long column chronicling the social, cultural, and political paroxysms of the Middle East today.