‘Manbij governs itself and people will decide on ties with Syrian regime’

People shop at a market in Manbij, March 2017.

After hitting headlines as the city where all the forces involved in the Syrian conflict converged, things have gone quiet on Manbij, as attention has swayed to Raqqa.

However life continues for the residents of the northern Syrian city, which recently declared a civilian administration and welcomed tens of thousands fleeing war in other areas.

Kom News spoke to Zaynab Jamil Kanbar, the co-chair of the Manbij Civilian Council about the latest developments and how the city is administering itself.

There is cooperation with the Americans in and around Manbij. Is there also any cooperation here with the Russians?

The governance in Manbij and our needs are all decided on and provided by us. However, the military council here decide if they need any assistance in protecting the city and it’s their decision not ours. We as the civilian community don’t have any Russians or Americans among us; we manage our city by ourselves and our goal is to build a democratic society based on a pluralist, moral and political mentality. If the military council sees that it is necessary to cooperate with others in order to protect the city then they are free to do so.

Does the Syrian government have any presence here or is there any cooperation with them?

No, there is no Syrian government presence here. The residents of Manbij suffered a lot, especially from Isis [Islamic State] terror, they were killed, beheaded and their heads were hung in Manbij’s streets. The regime, at the beginning of the crisis, was targeting civilians here with airstrikes and barrel bombs before targeting Isis & other jihadi groups. The regime was targeting civilians to terrorise them.

We are a civilian administration and the people of Manbij will decide whether there will be cooperation or not. For the time being they are rejecting any cooperation with the regime; and unless this regime changes its structure, goals and constitution and starts listening to the people’s demands then they will continue refusing them.

The government in Manbij handed over several villages in the west of the city to the Syrian government, what do you think of this?

The villages were not handed over to the regime. There were around eight villages liberated by the SDF but those villages were constantly targeted by missiles and artillery [by Turkish-backed FSA forces). Many civilians were being killed every day in these villages, so a deal was struck between the Manbij Military Council and the Russian forces to prevent this from happening. Then the Russians chose Syrian government forces to guard this border. It’s not our concern as the deal was agreed upon by the military council.

Is there any economic or oil trade from these areas to areas controlled by the Syrian government?

There is, not only here but also across all other areas [of the autonomous administration, Rojava] too. People need basic necessities such as food, electricity etc. so we cannot just simply prevent trade or reject humanitarian aid. Our project [type of governance] is based on humanitarian values so we cannot prevent trade, because if we did we would become as merciless as others. In fact I would call it humanitarian aid and not trade. We always say we are here for a humanitarian democratic project and citizens in general just want to live; we don’t care about who is administering, we care about providing these citizens: kids, the elderly and women, with their daily needs .

Is there any threat from Turkey and Turkish backed forces against Manbij?

Turkey is constantly making threats. But we know that international coalition forces are our allies, friends who helped us liberate Manbij. Furthermore we have utmost trust in the SDF forces, our civilian administration and our people who sacrificed a lot to reach this level.

We do not fear Turkish threats because we can respond to all threats in kind. Their threats are part of a psychological war aimed at spreading fear amongst the people  of Manbij. There is no technology stronger than the human will and spirit and we are ready to make sacrifices in order to defend and protect our territories. Hundreds of people have already sacrificed their lives to revive Manbij.

What has changed for the people and especially women in Manbij after Isis?

Nothing is impossible for the people. The strongest power is the human will. The women in Manbij are in a special situation, before Isis they lived a normal life, but now they are searching beyond that. Isis persecuted women, stoned them, killed their husbands, children and enslaved them and their daughters.

Following liberation the women met people who came here from all parts of society to create a democratic and equal society. They were motivated by these people; especially the women who were carrying weapons inspired them. Our aim was to reach the greatest number of women. We entered many homes, spoke to many women and heard about their suffering and saw that there was a need for a women’s council. There is also a women’s house in Manbij which deals solely with women’s affairs. There are many problems that are a result of Isis’ presence, and now we are experiencing the consequences.

The legislative council and all committees in Manbij are composed of three women and three men. Women have got full political rights and their own internal security force. Right now women are protecting Manbij and the women’s council; this was necessary to reset the character of the city post-Isis.

But when you go deeper this is an old society too. Women care for children, help their husbands and make decisions about family matters, such as if a child should join the military force. So women have and are forming the foundations of this city. However, we will organise ourselves and be trained here (in the council) to create a free voice and free mentality and we are insisting that this century will be the century of women’s freedom.

Manbij is a model for other Syrian cities to reunite Syrian territories. The most important thing for us is that we are Syrian. We don´t care what they say, all the people of Manbij insist on a Syrian identity. The future of Syria is very important to us. The people of this council take part in rebuilding the city and creating a new generation.

Interview by Huseyin Dogru.