The Syrian city of Manjib has been freed from the control of the militant group ISIS, also known as “Daeesh.”
The capture of the city, located on a key supply route between the Turkish border and the city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate, deprives the extremist group of a hub used to move fighters, weapons and supplies in and out of Syria.
In a statement late Friday, the Kurdish and Arab fighters known as the Syria Democratic Forces announced that Manbij had escaped “the claws of terrorism.” SDF fighters were searching the city for militant holdouts, but by Saturday, the battle had all but ended, according to Sharfan Darwish, a spokesman for the SDF-allied Manbij Military Council.
“There is no fighting in the city, but there is sweeping of areas where there might be… Daesh sleeper cells,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State that is considered pejorative by the group’s members.
A convoy of Islamic State fighters was seen retreating Friday from Manbij toward the Syrian border city of Jarablus, using hundreds of residents as human shields, pro- and anti-government activists reported.
Nasser Hajj Mansour, a spokesman for the SDF, said the militants left behind thousands of mines, a signature tactic.
Manbij community pages on Facebook reported that at least two men were killed by mines in the city’s Sarb neighborhood as residents searched their homes for the hidden devices using 12-foot-long iron bars.
It was but one of many horrors inflicted by Islamic State during its more than two-year reign over the city, residents said.
Those who violated the group’s extreme interpretation of Islam were subject to harsh punishments, including lashings, amputations and beheadings.
“I even saw them slaughtering 3-year-old children. They showed us no mercy,” an unidentified Manbij resident told Kurdistan 24 TV.
Standing amid the remains of a destroyed street market, an SDF fighter said, “Whenever [Daesh] leave an area, they burn it. … Any civilian who tries to leave, they immediately try to shoot him.”
U.S. officials have described the offensive, which began at the end of May, as an example of the strategy to defeat Islamic State by working with local ground forces to cut off the group’s supply lines and eliminate its safe havens.
Warplanes from the U.S.-led coalition played a key role, taking out hundreds of Islamic State positions before the SDF’s advance, while U.S. special forces provided assistance to the fighters on the ground.
The city had served as a center for recruiting and processing foreign fighters, and for dispatching operatives across the Turkish border for possible use in external attacks, Pentagon spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said this week.
Its loss “is a major setback for ISIL at the hands of our partners, the SDF, including thousands of Syrian Arab troops that are fighting to liberate their own homes,” he said, using another acronym for Islamic State.
Yet some Syrian activists questioned how the remaining Islamic State forces had been able to leave the city unopposed.
“Is it possible that 500 to 600 cars, with 2,500 people, could have left without a shot being fired?” asked Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the pro-opposition monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, in a phone interview Saturday.
“This was an undeclared deal between Daesh and the SDF.”
Other activists accused the SDF, which is dominated by a Syrian Kurdish militia, of seeking to assimilate Manbij into an autonomous Kurdish zone on Syrian soil.
“The SDF, meaning the Kurds, have a plan to establish Syrian Kurdistan,” said an activist with the pro-government Facebook page Manbij Here. He refused to give his name for security reasons.
“We’re happy that Daesh has left, but this is just the start.”