ISIS militants are losing control of the key Syrian city of Manbij to US-backed rebels and appear to be using civilians as human shields as they flee, the Pentagon said.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces, have battled to take control of Manbij in northern Syria since May and have claimed the city center, Pentagon Deputy Press Secretary Gordon Trowbridge told reporters Friday.
ISIS is “clearly on the ropes,” he added.
ISIS seized control of Manbij city in Aleppo province about two years ago. Defeating the militants there essentially blocks a supply route ISIS has between its heartland of Raqqa and Turkey.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the SDF had freed hundreds of civilians.
Dozens of women in black niqabs — which are similar to burkas but leave the face uncovered — were photographed being freed by the armed rebels, many of them carrying babies, some in tears, overwhelmed by their first taste of freedom in two years.
One woman set fire to her niqab, while another lit up a cigarette, smoking with a wide grin.
Men joyfully trimmed their beards, after being forced to grow them under ISIS control.
ISIS defeat ‘inevitable’
Manbij has been used as a hub for recruiting and processing foreign fighters, Trowbridge said. Militants also use it “for dispatching operatives across the Turkish border for potential use in external operations,” according to the Pentagon statement.
“That … is a major setback for ISIL at the hands of our partners the SDF, including thousands of Syrian Arab troops that are fighting to liberate their own homes. It is also the latest significant milestone in the coalition’s efforts to cut off and eliminate a hub of ISIL activity located outside Syria,” Trowbridge said. US government officials refer to ISIS as ISIL.
The SDF had flushed most of the ISIS militants from Manbij by last week, but on Friday the last of the militants began to flee.
Trowbridge fell short of declaring the city fully liberated, with pockets of fighting continuing in the city’s north. But he described an ISIS defeat there as “inevitable.”
The SDF, however, claimed the city had been liberated.
“It is now time for the good news, news that terrorism has been taken out of Manbij city. The city is now fully under our control,” SDF spokesman Sharvan Darwesh said on his Facebook page Saturday.
The Pentagon said it had received reports that fighters were mixing with civilians to use them as human shields, but added it has not been able to verify the reports.
Other reports say the militants are fleeing in vehicles and are keeping civilians close as a way to prevent being bombarded.
“ISIL has consistently shown a willingness to put innocent lives at risk in blatant violation not only of the laws of armed conflict but of common human decency,” he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented the deaths of 1,744 civilians and fighters in Manbij since May 31.
The United States backs the SDF with airstrikes as well as arms and military training.
Since May 21, the SDF has liberated more than 1,000 square kilometers of territory from ISIS and taken out more than 600 fortified fighting positions, Trowbridge said.