Manbij (Syria) (AFP) – As a knot of US-backed Syrian fighters advanced gingerly into the Islamic State group bastion of Manbij, the crack of a jihadist sniper round forced them to take cover behind a bullet-riddled wall.
One crouching fighter identified the source and shouted directions into a walkie-talkie. Immediately, his colleagues fired a barrage of bullets at the shooter from behind the wall.
Backed by US-led coalition warplanes, the Syrian Democratic Forces — an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters — broke into western districts of Manbij on Thursday.
A unit of SDF fighters piled into a camouflaged, armoured vehicle they nicknamed Scorpion and drove past a blue English-language sign at city limits announcing: “Welcome to Manbij”.
Nearby, a large stone plaque erected by IS after its capture of the city in 2014 promised residents: “In the land of the Islamic State, you, your money, your religion and your honour are safe.”
Accompanied by a team of AFP journalists who were given exclusive access, the SDF fighters rolled slowly through the city’s western districts, clearing out the last IS snipers before attempting to push further towards the centre.
Blown-out apartment blocks stood empty, as thousands of civilians had already fled.
Wrecked cars blocked off sidestreets, probably booby-traps planted by the jihadists to slow down the SDF’s advance.
Several bodies lay abandoned on the street, unidentifiable as they began to decompose in the summer heat.
As dusk began to fall, SDF commanders ordered AFP’s journalists to pull back beyond city limits in anticipation of an IS counter-attack.
– Car bombs, secret tunnels –
SDF forces began their drive on Manbij on May 31, crossing the Euphrates River from the east and encircling the city less than two weeks later.
At least 200 US special operations forces, as well as French special forces, are supporting the operation in an advisory capacity.
On the western edge of the city, SDF fighter Mervan Rojava stood outside an apartment block that had been partly destroyed by an IS car bomb.
“The first phase — surrounding Manbij — is over, and now we are gradually entering the city itself,” he told AFP.
The lanky, bearded fighter wears a green bandana emblazoned with a reddish-pink floral pattern.
“There are fierce street battles in western neighbourhoods between our forces and Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
In a small village less than a kilometre (mile) away, SDF field commanders met in a damaged building to plan their next steps.
Laying out a map of the city, they identified IS positions inside Manbij and prepared to send the coordinates to coalition warplanes circling above.
One SDF fighter in the meeting told AFP that IS had planted car bombs across the city.
“They also dug many tunnels to avoid the coalition air strikes,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Air support from coalition warplanes has been crucial to the SDF advance.
According to CENTCOM, the coalition has carried out at least 230 strikes since the offensive began last month.
– ‘Daesh is collapsing’ –
SDF field commander Ali Kobane said the growing number of car bombs driven by suicide attackers showed the jihadists’ desperation.
“Daesh is collapsing. This is why it’s resorting to using car bombs, but our forces are patient,” Kobane said, wrapping a checkered black-and-white scarf gently around his neck.
“Even if Daesh has prepared a huge number of car bombs, it will be to no avail,” he said.
“Whenever we see a car bomb coming our way, we’re happy — it means Daesh is crumbling.”
Founded in October, the Kurdish-dominated SDF have seized territory from IS across swathes of northern and northeastern Syria.
Capturing Manbij, a key staging post on IS’s supply route from Turkey, would be their most significant victory yet.
In the nearby village of Um al-Safa, dozens of residents displaced from the city are living in tents, awaiting an SDF victory so they can return home.
A small child ran through the streets, waving a flyer that had been dropped by coalition warplanes hours earlier.
“The will of the Syrian people will break the shackles of terrorism,” it said.