The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is dominated by the Syrian PKK affiliate Democratic Union Party's (PYD) People's Protection Units (YPG) militia, has captured 34,400 hectares of territory from DAESH in Manbij since last week, a statement from the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) on Tuesday said. As clashes continue, thousands of civilians started to flee the surrounded town.
The U.S.-led anti-DAESH coalition has supported the groups conducting the ground offensive on Manbij, a 98-kilometer strip in Syria along the Turkish border, launching more than 105 airstrikes, CENTCOM said.
"The Syrian Arab Coalition [part of the SDF] is leading the operation and will be responsible for securing Manbij once it is freed," the statement read.
Indicating that the operation to free Manbij is part of the coalition-supported moderate Syrian opposition efforts to clear DAESH from the Turkish border and the [Marea] line," the statement added that the objective is to minimize the DAESH threat to Turkey, Europe and the U.S.
"The Syrian Arab Coalition supported by coalition air power have destroyed 108 DAESH fighting positions, 31 DAESH vehicles, 17 DAESH heavy-weapons, two DAESH weapon caches, and one DAESH vehicle-borne improvised explosive device," the statement said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the SDF is now within 5 kilometers of Manbij to the north, 2 kilometers to the south and about 7 kilometers from the east, and added that thousands of people have started to flee the besieged town."DAESH has begun allowing civilians to flee to the west," some in cars, but many carrying their belongings on foot, the observatory's Rami Abdel Rahman said.
About 20,000 people are still in Manbij, which had a pre-war population of about 120,000 – mostly Arabs but about a quarter are Kurdish. DAESH overran the town in early 2014, just months before declaring a cross-border caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
Washington, which has more than 200 special forces troops deployed to back the SDF, has said some 3,000 Arab fighters are taking part in the assault, supported by about 500 Kurdish soldiers. Yet the observatory has claimed the opposite and said that of the 4,000 fighters it estimates are taking part, most are Kurdish.
Commenting on the operation at a press conference in Kenya last Thursday, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the U.S. assured Turkey that mostly Arab forces will conduct the operation in Manbij instead of the YPG. "The main forces are Arab militants. That is what we were told," he said.
Citing the PYD's ties with the outlawed PKK, Turkish officials have repeatedly said a PYD presence in this area would be a direct threat to the country's national security, and they do not want its ties overland with the rest of Syria and the Middle East cut off by a hostile force. Various nongovernmental organizations have reported that the PYD had carried out war crimes and forced relocations of Arab and Turkmen populations in the area to maintain its presence. Instead of PYD or regime control in the region, Turkish officials have long proposed establishing a safe zone in the area.