U.S. forces take up positions on the outskirts of the Syrian town, Manbij, a flashpoint between Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters and U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, March 7, 2017.
U.S. forces take up positions on the outskirts of the Syrian town, Manbij, a flashpoint between Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters and U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, March 7, 2017.

WASHINGTON - Civilian leadership has assumed governance in the flashpoint northern Syrian town of Manbij for the first time since it was liberated from Islamic State (IS) last year, local officials said.

Manbij's local council said a governing body has been formed to run affairs in the ethnically diverse town that has seen skirmishes between Kurdish, Turkish and Arab interests.

“We have formed an executive council that has 13 committees that will be responsible for running the city and providing services to the local population,” said Qasim Ramo, deputy head of the Manbij Civilian Council.

He told VOA that Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and other groups have proportionate representation in the new administration and their main objective is to help “rebuild what has been destroyed by IS.”

US troops recently deployed to area

The U.S. military recently deployed a small number of forces in and around Manbij, to “deter” different parties from attacking each other and ensure that all groups focus on the fight against Islamic State militants, a Pentagon spokesman said last week.

Local officials said U.S. advisers helped form the new civilian entity.

“We hope that this new effort will encourage people who have fled because of IS to come back to their homes,” said Ibrahim Quftan, head of the new council.

Manbij, Syria

Manbij's prewar population was approximately 150,000. Local reports estimate that half of the population still lives in the city.

IS fighters were pushed out from Manbij in August 2016 after U.S.-backed Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) advanced into the city, located 30 kilometers south of the Turkish border.

Turkey objects to Kurdish presence

The town had been administrated by Manbij Military Council, a local affiliate of the SDF. But Turkey has objected to any Kurdish presence in the region, arguing that the majority of Manbij's population is Arab and that it has to be under the control of ethnic Arab forces.

Turkey also views the Kurdish YPG, the main force with the SDF, as a terrorist organization and vows to battle it in several parts of northern Syria.

In recent weeks, Manbij became a flashpoint after Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies moved closer to the city limits, after having pushed out IS from the nearby town of al-Bab. There has been heavy fighting between the two sides.

United States, Russia get involved

The escalation eased after the U.S. deployed some of its Special Operations Forces and military advisers to the area. Russia too recently has established a military coordination center in the area to consult local forces.

“Manbij is technically under international protection now and announcing a local civilian council at this time could be explained as a guarantee for peace,” said Anwar Barazi, a local journalist.

The U.S. top general, Joseph Dunford, along with the chief of Russia's general staff, Valery Gerasimov, were hosted by their Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar, in the Mediterranean resort of Antalya last week. According to officials, the meeting sought to find ways to avoid potential confrontations among the forces operating in Syria including in and around Manbij.

The U.S. and Russia were key to brokering a governing deal in Manbij which placated Turkey, officials say.

“This local council was declared after Turkey's consent,” said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that has researchers across Syria. “For the time being, Turkey won't consider provoking the local Kurds in Manbij.”

VOA's Mahmoud Bali contributed to this report.