After two years of rule, ISIS was expelled from most of the city of Manbij in Northern Syria on August 13, 2016. The battle between ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—a US-backed coalition made up of of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, Turkmen, and Circassian militias—lasted 73 days and the SDF says it will continue the battle until Manbij is fully liberated.
The operation was named “Operation Martyr Commander Faysal Abu Leyla” in honor of the Kurdish FSA and SDF Commander Faisal “Abu Leyla” Sadoun, who was killed by an ISIS sniper on June 6, 2016.
Before withdrawing, however, ISIS left thousands of mines planted throughout various parts of the city. As of August 15, the SDF had already cleared more than 13,000 mines.
Speaking to Global Voices, Ahmed Mohammed, a Turkey-based Syrian activist at the Syrian Institute for Justice who is originally from Manbij, said the mines were probably placed on known battle lines and other fighting areas, including civilian areas. In fact, Mohammed told us that ISIS had mines placed all over the area and inside unexpected objects:
Mines were found inside a garlic and onion basket, a staircase, and even normal-looking rocks across the fields.
Sherfan Darwish, the SDF's spokesperson, confirmed Mohammed's claims to the Financial Times, saying that “ISIS has mined everything—refrigerators, house appliances, tea kettles, everything.”
This, the Financial Times reminds us, is a common tactic:
A typical Isis tactic is to mine buildings and roads when its enemies advance, a move that not only slows progress for days and weeks but also can inflict heavy casualties well after the group has fled.
Mohammed says ISIS's mines are a mix of improvised and Russian explosives:
Most of the mines are handmade, few are Russian mines, and the majority are landmines. Others are distributed throughout houses: in doors and entrances, refrigerators, cooking utensils and even teapots. They even included behind wall paintings and inside shops.
The neighborhoods where mines were spread are heavily in the southern, western and north-western part of the city of Manbij, in the outskirts of the northern neighborhoods and in the outskirts of the eastern neighborhoods as well as in many villages.
The Syrian-lead initiative “Syria With No Mines” shared an image online of a mine disguised as a cup:
Mines planted in civilian houses by ISIS before their retreat from Manbij city
According to Munif Al-Tai, another human rights activist currently residing in Turkey but originally from Manbij, the SDF has found 14,000 mines in recent days, and the hidden explosives have already managed to claim more than 100 lives.
The SDF are trying to disarm the mines, but the matter takes time to comb the areas one after the other. Mines in homes need checking first from homeowners.
According to locals in Manbij, the SDF refused to disarm mines without being paid, though these reports are unconfirmed. Others say they've submitted complaints to the relevant authorities.
The use of mines in the Syrian conflict has raised serious concerns from Syrian and international organizations. The UN's Mine Action Gateway reports that there are an estimated 5.1 million people living in highly contaminated areas, including 2 million children. Mines have been used by many armed factions in Syria, most notably by ISIS and the Assad regime.
The Violations Documentation Center in Syria says the Assad regime even used naval mines on in August last year:
Dropped hundreds of barrel bombs, known for their random highly-destructive nature, dozens of unguided surface-to-surface missiles (Fil missiles), naval mines, and cylinder bombs on the city in addition to launching dozens of airstrikes by Mig warplanes.
In January this year, residents of the besieged city of Madaya reported to the Guardian that the Assad regime's forces and their allies surrounded the area with mines.