The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) encircled the city of Manbij in northern Aleppo province on Friday (June 10th) in a major blow to the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL).
Hundreds of civilians escaped the city on Sunday, helped by the SDF who "transported them to safer areas", Syrian Observatory for Human Rights chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
"Around 800 civilians fled on foot towards areas held by the SDF alliance south of the town," he said.
At least 223 ISIL fighters and 28 SDF troops had been killed since the alliance offensive against Manbij began on May 31st, he said.
So far the armed coalition has succeeded in liberating a large number of villages and farms that surround Manbij and units have drawn within a few kilometres of the city.
ISIL surrounded on three sides
Manbij Military Council (MMC) platoon commander Ghassan Ibrahim told Al-Shorfa the SDF and MMC will continue their operations against ISIL until the city and its rural areas are fully liberated.
The ground forces are co-ordinating with and have the full support of international coalition aircraft, which are conducting airstrikes against ISIL's positions, he said.
The forces have reached the outskirts of Manbij on three sides, at distances varying between five and seven kilometres, he said, adding that dozens of ISIL elements had been killed since the start of the operation.
"Forty villages and farms in the rural areas of Manbij are now in the hands of SDF forces, leaving ISIL elements only the southern side of the city from which to flee towards the city of al-Bab and the town of al-Rai, after SDF forces seized full control of the northern, eastern and western sides [of Manbij]," he said.
Many cars have been seen leaving the city, he said, likely moving the families of ISIL fighters in preparation to transport them to Jarablus or al-Raqa.
"ISIL elements entered the village of Awn Dadat dressed in military uniforms similar to those worn by SDF forces," he said. "Residents came out to greet them and express their happiness to be rid of ISIL, only to be fired upon randomly by the militants, and many residents were killed and wounded."
Awn Dadat, which lies on the main highway connecting Manbij to Jarablus, is currently under SDF control, he said.
Manbij is of strategic importance as it connects the city of al-Raqa with the rest of the areas controlled by ISIL, he said, particularly al-Bab to the south and Jarablus to the north, all the way up to the Turkish-Syrian border.
Therefore, seizing control of Manbij will turn the areas controlled by ISIL into "isolated islands that will be easy to liberate", Ibrahim said.
Honouring commander Faisal Abu Layla
A number of SDF elements have been killed in the battles with ISIL, either in direct combat or from the landmines planted by the group prior to and during the battles, said Kataeb Shams al-Shamal fighter Abdel Fattah Nasreddine.
"The most prominent of these martyrs is the founder and leader of Shams al-Shamal, Faisal Abu Layla, whose real name is Faisal Abdi Saadoun, and who also was a prominent co-founder of the SDF and had an important role in the formation of the MMC," he told Al-Shorfa.
"The late commander gained notoriety as a fierce fighter against ISIL with his remarkable participation in the battle for the city of Kobani and the important role he had in liberating it despite being shot and wounded on more than one occasion by the group’s elements," Nasreddine said.
Abu Layla was hit June 3rd by a heat seeking missile during a battle for the village of Khafiya Abu Qalqal in rural Manbij, Nasreddine said. He was transported by military helicopter to the Sulaimaniya Hospital in Iraq for treatment, but died from his wounds June 5th.
The current campaign to liberate Manbij has been renamed the 'Faisal Abu Layla Operation' after the late commander, he said.
Fears of fierce battles in city centre
SDF and MMC forces have made significant advances towards the city of Manbij owing to the significant support they received from international coalition aircraft, said Syrian journalist Mohammed al-Khatib, a member of the Aleppo Media Centre.
"ISIL’s main force is not in the rural Manbij area where the battles are taking place, but within the city centre where there are large concentrations of the group’s elements armed with heavy weapons," he told Al-Shorfa.
Al-Khatib expressed concern over the humanitarian situation in the city, as some residents were able to flee, but others remain.
If the battles move inside the city they could become more fierce and violent and turn into a "street war", he said.
This could result in the deaths of a large number of civilians and a massive wave of displacement among the population of more than 120,000, he added.