Turkey-backed rebel group commander Adnan Abu Faisal and his army are encamped near the frontline in northern Syria, waiting to launch an offensive on his home city of Manbij, Reuters reported.
The decision will depend on Turkey, the main backer of Abu Faisal’s group, and on how contacts evolve between Washington and Ankara over the United States’ plans to withdraw forces from Syria, a move set to reshape a major theater of the war.
The United States and Turkey are allies both in the NATO defense alliance and in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but Ankara sees the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces that helped the US-led coalition drive ISIL out of Manbij in 2016 as a security threat.
The YPG fear the US withdrawal will open the way for a threatened Turkish attack into northern Syria, including Manbij, but US President Donald Trump has warned Turkey of “economic devastation” if it goes ahead with the attack.
“We are ready with our forces … for ‘zero hour’ to begin any military action,” Abu Faisal, whose forces have more than 300 vehicles including pickup trucks and armored vehicles provided by Turkey, told Reuters.
“Preparations are going at full speed,” he said.
Abu Faisal, 36, was an army captain before Syria’s civil war began in 2011 but defected from the Syrian army in 2012 to join the fight against President Bashar al-Assad.
Abu Faisal helped wrest control of Manbij from the Syrian army early in the conflict but fled when it was seized by IISL in 2014 and has not set foot there since then.
The YPG have also left Manbij but retain influence over the Kurdish-allied groups that hold the city 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the border with Turkey.
The US military pullout will not only leave Kurds exposed to possible confrontation with Turkey but will also open the way for the expansion of Russian and Iranian sway into the areas that US forces will be leaving.
Late last month, the YPG called on Assad’s forces to protect Manbij from attack by Turkey. Syrian government forces, which are backed by Russia, answered the YPG appeal by deploying outside Manbij.
Abu Faisal’s rebel fighters, backed by Turkish forces, made their own advance towards the city the same day but stopped short of an attack. Since then, Turkey has been engaged in diplomatic contacts with Washington and Assad’s Russian allies.
The Kurds who control swaths of northern Syria have turned to Russia and the Syrian government since Trump’s announcement, hoping to secure a deal that keeps Turkey at bay and preserves their autonomy within a reformed Syrian state.
Abu Faisal said “political understandings” would determine whether an attack went ahead, reflecting the influence of foreign powers in the Syrian conflict. A political solution that spared blood would be welcome, he added.
For Abu Faisal, the YPG is no less of an enemy than ISIL or Assad.
Abu Faisal — head of the opposition’s Manbij Military Council in exile — says it would be a catastrophe if Assad were allowed to recover Manbij. He warned this would trigger yet more displacement of civilians fleeing a return of Assad’s rule.
His priority is to secure the return home of Manbij residents who have been living either as refugees in Turkey or in nearby areas of northern Syria that are controlled by Turkey and its Syrian allies.
“There cannot be acceptance of any political solution or military solution except with the return of these displaced people to their city,” Abu Faisal said.
“Our goal is to reassure the people of Manbij that its people will run the affairs of this city,” he said.