JEBB HASSAN AGHA, Syria: A siege by US-backed Kurdish and Arab forces of the key jihadist-held city of Manbij in northern Syria left tens of thousands of civilians trapped yesterday. Near Damascus, suicide bombings claimed by the Islamic State jihadist group outside a Shiite shrine killed at least 20 people, in the latest in repeated deadly strikes on the revered site. IS has fought back with deadly bombings even as it comes under pressure on several fronts since it declared a cross-border “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq in 2014.
The Syrian Democratic Forces supported by US air strikes encircled Manbij on Friday, severing the jihadist group’s principal supply route between Turkey and its de facto Syrian capital, Raqqa city. Manbij lies at the heart of the last stretch of territory along Turkey’s border still under IS control, and it was a key point on the jihadists’ supply line from Turkey. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said warplanes from a US-led coalition have been conducting heavy bombing raids on the town and its surroundings.
“Tens of thousands of civilians still there can’t leave as all the routes out of town are cut,” the Britain-based monitoring group’s head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP. He said at least 159 IS fighters and 22 SDF troops had been killed as well as 37 civilians, most of the last group in coalition air raids, since the alliance launched its Manbij offensive on May 31. “Bakeries in the town haven’t been open since Friday and food is beginning to become rare,” Abdel Rahman said.
Manbij had a pre-war population of about 120,000 – mostly Arabs, but about a quarter are Syrian Kurds. Thousands fled this week as the SDF closed in on the city which has been held by IS since early 2014. Outside the city in areas reclaimed by the Kurdish-led alliance from IS, residents yesterday expressed relief. “We’re so happy and we hope Manbij will soon be liberated as we have relatives there,” said Munzer Saleh, a resident of Jebb Hassan Agha village, 13 km southeast of the city.
“Our village was known for cigarette smuggling so Daesh was always after us,” he told AFP, using an Arabic acronym for IS which prohibits smoking. Doha Hajj Ali, a young woman, cursed the jihadists who had laid down strict rules to govern her and her neighbors’ lives. “They’d say, ‘Cover your eyes’… Make-up, parties, and weddings were not allowed.” But residents said the village has run out of bread and water, and an AFP reporter saw a young boy beg for bread from passing cars. “We haven’t eaten bread for two days,” he said, after the SDF seized the village at the start of the week. Dakish Fatimi, a Kurdish Red Crescent official, said his team had treated dozens of civilians wounded by landmines planted by retreating IS fighters.
Western powers lashed out at Syria’s government on Friday, accusing regime forces of dropping barrel bombs on the town of Daraya hours after it received its first food aid in almost four years. The strikes used crude unguided explosive devices. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault accused Damascus of “extraordinary duplicity” over the bombings, which came just as aid workers were beginning to distribute supplies to thousands of desperate people. Ayrault said he was “outraged beyond words”, declaring the end of an already shaky ceasefire and calling world powers to meet.
A convoy of trucks carrying food arrived in Daraya late Thursday, delivering rice, lentils, sugar, oil and wheat flour to civilians for the first time since the regime laid siege to the town in late 2012. Assad’s forces bombarded the town shortly after, according to a witness and human rights monitors, dropping indiscriminate barrel bombs from helicopters as residents shared food. Local council member Shadi Matar said aid had not yet been distributed “because of the intensity of the raids”. US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said “such attacks are unacceptable in any circumstance, but in this case they also hampered the delivery and distribution of badly needed assistance”.
Nearly 600,000 people live in besieged areas in Syria, most surrounded by government forces, and another four million in hard-to-reach areas, according to the United Nations. UN-backed peace talks on ending the war stalled in April when the opposition walked out over lack of humanitarian access. Aid agencies said supplies reached Douma on Friday – the first UN delivery since autumn 2013, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent said 39 trucks took food and non-food items including medicines into the besieged town. But the UN’s humanitarian agency was still awaiting Damascus’s approval to deliver aid to two more of Syria’s besieged areas: Al-Waer in Homs province and Zabadani in rural Damascus. – AFP