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Will Manbij fighters heed the call to return home?

The Manbij Military Council has called on rebel fighters from Manbij to desert their militias and return to their cities and villages.
The Manbij Military Council members are seen during a news conference in Manbij, Syria June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said - RC119372D1F0

MANBIJ, Syria — The Manbij Military Council has again called for the return home of Manbij residents fighting with Turkish-backed Syrian opposition factions in the areas of seized in Operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch, requesting that they stop furthering Turkey's occupation of Syrian territory.

In a Feb. 3 statement posted online, the council’s General Command, asserted, “It is necessary to assume our moral responsibility by warning our citizens against the manipulation and exploitation practiced by the Turkish occupation state in the areas of Euphrates Shield and other Syrian-occupied areas by perpetuating a mercenary culture and forcing the country’s citizens into terrorist military organizations that only serve Ottoman expansionist, nationalistic interests.”

In a phone call with Al-Monitor, council spokesman Shervan Derwish said, “Our call to the people of Manbij in Syrian opposition military groups is the second one. In 2017, we launched the same initiative. We want the people of our areas to return to their homeland and to not be tools in the hands of the Turkish state occupying Syria. We do not want our people to serve Turkey’s interests in occupying more Syrian lands. We call on the people of Manbij to return to their hometown to serve their country.”

Derwish asserted that the council would coordinate resettlement for those wishing to return. “The defectors are free to choose between integrating into civilian life or fighting in the ranks of the Manbij Military Council,” he said.

Al-Monitor contacted Sabri al-Manbaji, who fights in the ranks of the Syrian National Army (SNA) of the Free Syrian Army in Operation Euphrates Shield areas. He affirmed that many opposition fighters want to return to their homes, citing poor salaries, restlessness and unfulfilled Turkish promises.

Manbaji further remarked, “I thought about defecting from the national army and returning to Manbij and my village, Assaliyah, but I was afraid that the national army might take revenge on my family, residing in the city of al-Bab, to dissuade me from doing so.”

He also explained, “Some fighters whom I knew personally managed to defect during Operation Peace Spring and joined the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces]. The majority of their families were still in areas under SDF control, but those who lived with their families in the areas of Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch feared the opposition militants would threaten their families to keep them from defecting and returning to their hometowns.” Manbaji himself fought in Operation Peace Spring, which Turkey launched in October 2019 to target the SDF.

Al-Monitor also spoke with Abu Omar al-Idlibi, a leader of the Democratic Northern Brigade, a faction whose fighters hail from the city of Idlib, and who also fights for the SDF. He said that military councils in areas under Kurdish self-administration plan to follow the lead of the Manbij Military Council.

“The SDF military councils in each city, such as Deir ez-Zor, Ras al-Ain and Tell Abyad, will be making such calls to their citizens who joined the Syrian opposition groups. They will call on them to return to their cities and villages as civilians if they wish to do so. This is their right. If they want to defend their cities, the doors of military institutions in Rojava are open to them.”

Idlibi claimed that individual and sometimes collective defections occur daily among the opposition militias. “Around 1,000 have defected [to join SDF] since the beginning of Operation Peace Spring to this day,” he said.

Hamed al-Omar, from Manbij defected from the Sultan Murad Division and is now fighting for the Manbij Military Council. “Two months ago, I managed to escape from the city of Tell Abyad to the city of Manbij,” he said. “I handed over my weapon to the leadership of the council. The command took care of me and gave me the choice between returning to my city as a civilian or fighting in the ranks of the Manbij Military Council. I preferred to continue my life as a fighter to defend my city, which is under military attack by the opposition Syrian National Army and the Turkish state.”

On Feb. 16, local media reported that people in the western countryside of Manbij had been displaced to neighboring areas after strikes by the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition factions.

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