MANBIJ, Syria – A rowdy mob of over two dozen men on motorcycles streamed into the small square in the center of Manbij. They cheered and waved jerseys of their local soccer team, which had just beat the town's top club. The upset victory was sweet, and their wild chants reverberated, "My people! My people!"
It was a moment of normalcy distracting from the tensions engulfing the northern Syrian town, which is at the heart of a tussle among Syria's Kurds, the United States and Turkey.
Turkey has threatened to march on Manbij and wrest it from Kurdish hands after its forces won a resounding victory over Kurdish fighters earlier this month and took control of Afrin, a town 60 miles (100 kilometers) to the west.
If Turkey goes through with its threats, it will come in direct confrontation with American troops who patrol Manbij alongside their Kurdish allies
Ankara and Washington are in talks to diffuse the tensions, with a new round expected on Friday. But it is unclear what would appease Turkey, which says it is prepared to push all the way west to the Iraqi border to push the Kurdish YPG militia — Washington's only ally in Syria — away from its borders. It views the YPG as a threat to its national security and an extension of its own insurgents.
Manbij residents said the repeated threats by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have unnerved them — especially after the demoralizing defeat of the Kurds in Afrin. But many who spoke to the Associated Press during a recent visit also said they have faith the U.S. won't abandon them to face Turkish advances on their town.
Manbij, a mixed Arab and Kurdish town of nearly 400,000, was liberated from Islamic State group militants in 2016 by the YPG fighters with backing from U.S-led coalition airstrikes. Now the town is bustling with trade and life.
With Turkey's threats, the town has become a lynchpin for U.S. policy in Syria. Its loss would damage the Americans' prestige and military deployment in eastern Syria.
Said al-Sayegh, a 33-year old teacher, proudly told of how he didn't leave Manbij after the IS takeover — even when the militants put a gun to his neck, threatening to kill him for refusing to grow a beard. And he said there's no reason to worry now, confident that Erdogan won't risk a fight with the U.S. and the Americans won't back down.
"They will stay. They have invested in it and they have an ally here," he said. "For the Americans, it is strategically important for the control of whole of eastern Syria."
The U.S. Central Command chief, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, said Wednesday the United States recognizes Turkey's security concerns, but it also has a "key partner on the ground" in the Kurds, who made sacrifices in the fight against IS. "We have to continue to work between these two objectives to ensure that we can find an appropriate way forward," he told journalists.
On Wednesday afternoon, the town's center was buzzing with shoppers. Shop windows gleamed with new clothes, perfumes and trendy shoes. Women in fashionable headscarves — and some with veils over their faces — went up and down the commercial streets, as children were enjoying ice cream in garish fluorescent colors. A few buildings still showed the scars of the fight against IS; a women's clothes shop — named "Zara," in a knock-off of the international chain — has newly opened in a building whose upper floors are still a crushed wreck.
Security patrols and roving, surprise checkpoints gave evidence of the high alert that local forces were on after a recent assassination attempt on a senior Kurdish official.
Despite people's confidence, the YPG's defeat in Afrin weighed heavily on some. Turkish troops with allied Syrian fighters waged a two-month assault on the Kurdish-majority town in heavy fighting. There was no U.S. presence in Afrin, which was not a theater in fighting against the Islamic State group.
Jamal Sattouf, a resident of Manbij, said his heart went out as he watched footage of Afrin residents streaming out of their town in the winter months, fleeing Turkish bombardment. It reminded him of what he and his family endured in the fighting to free Manbij from IS.
"I don't wish that (suffering) for anyone," Sattouf said. "We fear that he (Erdogan) will be here tomorrow ... People are afraid of him and no one else."
But Mona al-Ahmed, wearing a faint pink lipstick and a black hijab, said she was adamant Erdogan can't disturb her life — again, after her world was turned upside down by the IS takeover in 2014. During their rule, the militants imposed their radical interpretation of Islamic law enforced with ruthless brutality. Women were largely forced to stay at home.
"We now feel alive again," she said. She was encouraged not just by the U.S. presence but also by the town's strong fighters and defenses.
"It is impossible for Erdogan to come here," she said. "We are safe and it is impossible for anyone to come in here."
Ahmed al-Khadr, a member of Manbij's internal security, was guarding the rowdy fans of the Al-Ittihad soccer team celebrating their victory over their local rival club, Al-Sharif. He was dismissive of Erdogan, saying he'd made no moves despite all his threats.
"Where was he when Daesh was here," al-Khadr said, using the Arabic acronym for IS. "Why didn't he enter Manbij then? Why didn't he want it?"