The tale of two victories against Assad’s regime

The battle in Manbij has been largely successful in terms of discipline, writes Hassan Hassan

A Syria Democratic Forces fighter helps civilians who were evacuated by the SDF from an ISIL-controlled neighbourhood of Manbij, in Aleppo. Rodi Said / Reuters
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On two consecutive Fridays this month, Aleppo was the site of major victories against the Assad regime and ISIL in Syria. In southwestern Aleppo, anti-government forces broke a month-long siege enforced by the regime. In eastern Aleppo, a coalition of Arab and Kurdish forces drove out ISIL from one of its critical strongholds, Manbij.

The two developments are a blow to the country’s worst killers, and thus should be commended. The win in southwestern Aleppo saved about 300,000 civilians from a crippling siege and a slow death, while the defeat of ISIL in Manbij will further weaken the group and deprive it a crucial planning and recruitment hub.

Notwithstanding the benefits of defeating regime forces in southern Aleppo, the liberation of Manbij is in many ways a far greater victory for Syria.

The battle for breaking the siege was framed as a victory for Al Qaeda’s newly-rebranded Jabhat Fateh Al Sham (JFS), formerly Jabhat Al Nusra. A week after the JFS-led forces stormed the Artillery Academy, one of the regime’s key bastions near the city of Aleppo, a tug-of-war erupted on social media after JFS members lashed out at attempts by some rebels to take credit for the accomplishment.

The attacks were first directed at Ahrar Al Sham's chief of foreign political affairs, Labib Al Nahhas, who seemed to take credit for the well-publicised battle in an interview with the London-based Al Hayat, and who said JFS's disengagement from Al Qaeda was insufficient. The discussions on social media, triggered by two JFS officials, was further evidence that the group wanted the battle to appear as largely its own. Worryingly for the opposition, the episode marks a new phase of hegemony that involves the elimination of rivals and co-optation of like-minded groups, as I wrote in this space last week.

More disturbing was the name the rebels chose for the battle to break the siege in Aleppo. The operation was dubbed the “Ibrahim Al Youssef battle”, after the militant who gunned down dozens of his colleagues at the Artillery Academy in June 1979, as part of a Muslim Brotherhood insurrection against the rule of Hafez Al Assad. Captain Al Youssef reportedly separated Alawites from Sunnis and killed them. During the offensive in Aleppo, a spokesman for the JFS-led forces said they would do the same to Alawites today.

None of the participant groups, which ranged from moderates to jihadists, objected to the name choice. As it turned out, a non-jihadist group was the source of the name. One of Al Youssef’s sons, Yasser, is a commander with the Zinki, a faction that took part in the operation and was until recently backed by the United States.

Yasser posted a message he said he received from Ahrar Al Sham’s political officer, Mr Al Nahhas, who is often portrayed as a moderate. In the message and separate posts, Mr Al Nahhas glorifies the militant and depicts the operation in Aleppo as revenge for Al Youssef. Referring to Al Youssef, the message posted by Yasser reads: “Today is your day, our day, the day of the father, those who fought as strangers and who were wronged by everyone. Today, we give them back the respect and regard they deserve.”

Similarly, a member of a currently US-backed group near Damascus said this about Al Youssef: “My dear sir, my commander, the mission has been completely successfully. What you started in the past is being completed today by your sons.”

This was unmistakably a new low for the Syrian rebels. Even Muslim Brotherhood officials have distanced themselves from Youssef, who was a pioneer of the Fighting Vanguard, a militant Brotherhood offshoot.

The sentiments shown towards his legacy also say a lot about the extremism of the government side, especially given the growing presence of foreign Shia militias in Aleppo, a predominantly Sunni city. But it is also clear that extremist rebel forces are seeking to drag more people into their unabashedly sectarian rhetoric, which the opposition should resist if it wants to avoid helping Bashar Al Assad in the same way the Fighting Vanguard helped his father.

In contrast, the operation in Manbij was named after someone viewed by many as a hero born of this conflict. Faisal Abu Layla fought against ISIL alongside the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). He was killed during the first week of the battle to retake Manbij, in June. In a video before his death, he is seen instructing his fighters not to intrude on civilians or engage in looting.

Complaints of summary executions were still reported during the offensive, and dozens of civilians were killed in US-led strikes in the city. Fears about the YPG’s hegemonic and undemocratic agenda persist.

But relative to previous operations, it is safe to say that the battle in Manbij has been largely successful in terms of discipline. And relative to the rebels’ gain the Friday before that, the operation is a far superior victory for all Syrians.

Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

On Twitter: hxhassan