KHUSHFIT UM ADASAH, Syria—From this base in a nearby village, we could see an F-16 fighter jet flying above ISIS positions in the city of Manbij. After one week of combat, a U.S.-backed coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters has almost completely encircled this ISIS stronghold in Syria next to the Turkish border.
A female commander on the radio told fighters on the front lines to be careful about giving their positions. “Be accurate in giving me locations, otherwise many civilians would be killed, and we don’t want to kill innocent people,” she said, loud enough for the handful of journalists at this position to hear.
The mixed Kurdish and Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are backed on the ground by U.S. and French special forces who are advising and coordinating with local fighters and calling in coalition airstrikes. But they are not in a rush to take the city.
“From the north side, we allowed a road to remain open and we have passed the road between Aleppo and Manbij,” said Shervan Kobani, a Kurdish fighter. “We do this in order to avoid destruction of the city, in order for the civilians to escape, and to give the ISIS fighters an option to escape,” he told The Daily Beast.
Kobani said that the so-called Islamic State group is on its last legs in Manbij. “ISIS cannot resist us, and blow themselves up near civilians when we reach them. They are very weak now, and wear women’s clothes to escape.”
Even accounting for battlefield hyperbole, it does appear ISIS is getting weaker, and often ISIS fighters kill themselves before giving up to SDF-fighters.
Hassan Abu Ali, 34, from a Free Syrian Army (FSA) group working with the Kurds says the resistance of ISIS is now broken.
“The first line of ISIS in Halula is broken and in Sheikh Hajji Hussein and Mustafa Hamada. Now it will be easy for us, because initially it was very difficult,” he said.
“Now they realize they are besieged in Manbij and we give them three days to flee and within a few days we will be rid of them,” he said. “We allow the main road in the Ghandura village to be open, so they can flee. But maybe tomorrow we cut this also.”
The Manbij Military Council set up by SDF forces to capture the city from ISIS said in a statement, “The presence of civilians in the city and our care about the safety of these families forces us to be patient.”
Col. Christopher Gaver, the spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, sounds less optimistic about jihadist retreat. “The SDF has met heavy resistance from Daesh [ISIS] at the onset of the operation and at points along the way. We assess that Daesh will fight hard to retain Manbij as it is the key terrain on the line of communication out of Raqqa,” the de facto ISIS capital in Syria, Garver told reporters on Wednesday.
“Daesh has employed the tactics we have seen before as they defend and then cede territory, including the extensive use of IEDs to slow advancing forces and significantly damage the infrastructure they have lost,” he added.
Villagers seem to be very supportive of the SDF forces. “May God destroy them, thank God you got rid of them,” Um Farouq, 60, a local woman told local fighters, smiling. Other Arab civilians could be seen dancing victory dances, and hugging the SDF fighters.
“We were waiting for the SDF to come hour by hour and minute by minute. They liberated us from ISIS and we thank them,” said Mustafa Mohammed al-Ahmad. Asked if local civilians might join ISIS because of the “collateral damage” from U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, he said no. “The coalition haven’t killed civilians, they are accurate.”
Some civilians say it’s too early to tell if the SDF is going to be a positive presence, even if they are happy to be rid of ISIS.
Civilians seem to be helping local Kurdish fighters hunting for possible ISIS fighters in villages five to 10 kilometers from the front lines. Not far away, U.S. Special Forces, who covered their faces when in view of reporters, could be seen coordinating with the SDF
French special forces could be seen driving around the area days before the Frency government officially recognized their presence
The U.S.-led coalition forces have been training local Arab fighters for short periods
“We have been trained on demining, light weapons, but not heavy weapons, like the others,” he said. “We have many groups inside the SDF and each group has a specific training and in the case of heavy fighting, those go who were trained,” said Abu Yassir, 39, a local leader within the FSA working with the Kurds.
He said its especially important to learn demining. “They rely on mines and explosives,” he said.
“We received a training for 17 days from the Americans on demining and light weapons and raiding houses,” said Abu Ayham, 29, an Arab fighter. “Manbij is mined with explosives, so we have to be careful when we enter it.”
Nevertheless, the Arab fighters were not too happy, after their leader Abu Layla died from his injuries last Sunday. “We have many martyrs, including our leader Abu Layla. We would be more happy after we free Manbij,” said Abu Yassir.
It’s unclear if the SDF, after capturing Manbij, will return to fighting ISIS in Raqqa, the de-facto ISIS capital, or move towards Jarabulus and al Babab to open up a corridor from the town of Kobani to Efrin, to unite the Kurdish-led administrations.
“Yes, we will go towards Azaz and Efrin,” Kurdish fighter Shervan Kobani said, even though some Arab fighters still think they will move towards Raqqah after defeating ISIS in Manbij.
Abu Muthanna, a deputy FSA commander, told me during a funeral in Kobani that so far the Northern Raqqa campaign has stopped.
“We are ready to liberate Raqqa city, but the coalition decided to move towards Manbij,” he added. “Maybe, depending on the circumstances, the international coalition will go to northern Raqqa after Manbij is liberated,” he said
In the meantime, Syrian government forces, another enemy of the fighters here, are moving on Raqqa from the West, as sign that even when ISIS suffers significant defeats, this war and its complications are far from over.