Men cutting their long beards, women defiantly smoking cigarettes, and young girls removing and burning their head coverings were just some of the celebrations that filled the streets of newly liberated Manbij city in Syria.

A coalition of Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Christian fighters liberated the strategic stronghold from ISIS at the end of last week.  After a siege of more than two months, the fighters were welcomed into the devastated city with tears of joy.

Manbij is strategically important because of its proximity to the Turkish border. The area around the town has been a crucial source of supplies and reinforcements for ISIS since it took it over in January, 2014

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On May 31, the US-backed Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) started a campaign to remove ISIS from the surrounding area and the city.

The SDF is a Kurdish-dominated coalition with Sunni Arab and Syrian Christian fighters. The Kurdish element, known as the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), is seen as one of the most effective militias in Syria and includes a well-known, all-female branch known as the “Women’s Defense Units” or YPJ.

In July, the “Manbij Offensive,” as the military campaign became known, turned into a lengthy siege of the city’s downtown. The siege killed many SDF fighters and left the countryside more vulnerable to small ISIS’ attacks.

During the offensive, ISIS held the civilian population hostage, refusing multiple attempts at a humanitarian ceasefire to allow people to leave. Living conditions in the city deteriorated as food became scarce and people mostly hid indoors from the fighting and the strict ISIS rules.

“They have been forcing us to wear a burqa and cover our eyes and hands,” 44-year old Fatma Marea told ARA News after being liberated. “Those who would violate such instructions were being mercilessly punished by ISIS.”

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The conditions worsened during the final days of the Manjib offensive. ISIS began punishing the population collectively for their perceived support for the SDF.

“They have killed hundreds of men and raped dozens of women in the past few days, especially in the western countryside of Manbij, before withdrawing from most of the villages there,” activist Nassir Taljbini told ARA News amidst the ruin of the city.

The final military push into Manbij was complicated by civilians fleeing across the battle lines and ISIS’s widespread use of landmines. Further, crucial US air support is facing a backlash after multiple airstrikes are alleged to have killed civilians.

After 73 days of fighting, the SDF forces cleared Manbij and rescued an estimated 2,000 hostages. The fighting killed more than 435 civilians, about 300 SDF fighters, and more than 1,000 ISIS fighters, though estimates of the death toll vary widely. The city is in ruins and almost 80,000 people have been displaced.

Despite the devastation, images of celebration have poured out of the newly liberated city. Kurdish fighters dancing, girls shedding and burning their naqibs, and young and old women lighting up cigarettes-an action banned in areas under ISIS control.

The celebrations are a welcome respite in the long and bloody fighting that has killed hundreds of thousands, left Syria in shambles, and sparked a global refugee crisis.

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Yesterday, the SDF set up an Al-Bab Military Council, to continue the fight against ISIS in the Turkish border region. Despite the celebrations of the last week, the conflict is far from over.


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Syrians Celebrate ISIS Liberation By Cutting Beards, Burning Niqabs

By Brandon Blackburn-Dwyer