Manbij (Syria) The white, blue and red flag of Moscow is waving next to the banner of the Syrian government about thirty kilometers from Manbij, the stronghold in the hands of the Kurds, which the Turks want to wipe out. The Moscow troops guarantee a buffer zone on the west side of the city along the road leading to Aleppo. To the north the flag with stars and stripes is flown over an advanced American special forces base, which in turn patrol the front on the river Sajor with the Kurds. On the other hand, Turkish soldiers and their allies are preparing for some pushing and shoving when the two thousand men deployed by the US in the north-east of Syria withdraw as president Donald Trump has announced.
“We trust neither the Russians, nor the Americans, but we work with both to maintain security and stop the Turks,” Commander Jamal Abu Juma of the Al Bab area explains in perfect Levantine style. Every morning his men patrol the area with two armored Russian military police to maintain the status quo in Manbij, the epicenter of the game of Risk that is being played in this strategic corner of the Syrian conflict. “The jihadist groups supported by Ankara kill one other. Every day there is a firefight, not to mention the kidnappings for ransom. They do not even respect women”, complains the plump commander of the local military council of Al Bab, an ally of the Syrian democratic forces led by the Kurds. “With all the jihadist violence and the threats of Turkish attack people are terrified,” explains Abu Juma. For now it seems that the Russians in the west along with Americans and French in the north curb the aims of the “sultan” Erdogan, but the threat against Kurds branded as “terrorists” is real.
“Sixty thousand Turkish soldiers are ready to attack us,” says a Syrian Democratic general, who prefers not to divulge his name. He does not seem too worried about the American U-turn with respect to the Kurds being used as cannon fodder to eliminate the Islamic State. “We are negotiating through the Russians the future of the country with Damascus – reveals the general – We do not want independence, but a strong autonomy in the federal state of Rojava (25% of the territory controlled by the Kurds in the North East of Syria)”.
The negotiation concentrates on plans to maintain “Syrian territorial unity” and to include the Kurdish-led Democratic Forces (SDF) in the regular army. The Kurds will have seats guaranteed in the Damascus parliament and they will teach their language in schools.
The Syrian Risk focuses on Manbij, a quiet town which, together with its hinterland, has a population of half a million people. The jihadist suicide bombers are trying to infiltrate it to spread panic, just like last month when a terrorist killed four Americans in a busy street. “We have reports of a car bomb coming from the north,” they explain as if it was absolutely normal as soon as they arrive at the headquarters of the Kurdish forces.
North of the city, along the Sajor River, runs the first line of ten kilometers in front of the Turkish units and the Free Syrian Army, one of the first anti-Assad rebel groups. “The Turkish soldiers are easy to spot by the flag on the uniform, their equipment and more modern vehicles,” notes the young commander holding binoculars. From one of the many fixed posts that sprout like mushrooms on a bucolic terrain, the Kurdish militiamen await the war that will happen just a few hundred meters from a village of low white houses guarded by the Turks and Syrian rebels.
“Ankara is part of NATO. It is you who must stop them as your allies. Otherwise we will have to do it, even if they massacre us with planes and drones” pronounces Abu Sajor – the battle name of the commander which derives from the river along the front line. A column of armored vehicles with the stars and stripes flag fluttering in the wind rushes past us. The 28-year-old officer with a sad look has no doubts: “The Americans? If the Turks attack I only trust my men”.