Posts Tagged ‘SDF’

Assad’s March East Compounds West’s Syria Dilemma

August 17, 2017

BEIRUT/AMMAN — Syria’s war has entered a new phase as President Bashar al-Assad extends his grip in areas being captured from Islamic State, using firepower freed by Russian-backed truces in western Syria.

Backed by Russia and Iran, the government hopes to steal a march on U.S.-backed militias in the attack on Islamic State’s last major Syrian stronghold, the Deir al-Zor region that extends to the Iraqi border. Damascus hailed the capture of the town of al-Sukhna on Saturday as a big step in that direction.

The eastward march to Deir al-Zor, unthinkable two years ago when Assad seemed in danger, has underlined his ever more confident position and the dilemma facing Western governments that still want him to leave power in a negotiated transition.

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The war for western Syria, long Assad’s priority, has shifted down several gears thanks to the ceasefires, including one organised by Moscow and Washington in the southwest.

But there is no sign of these truces leading to a revival of peace talks aimed at putting Syria back together through a negotiated deal that would satisfy Assad’s opponents and help resolve a refugee crisis of historic proportions.

Instead, Assad’s face has been printed on Syrian banknotes for the first time, and his quest for outright victory suggests he may retrain his guns on rebel pockets in the west once his goals in the east are accomplished. Attacks on the last rebel stronghold near Damascus have escalated this month.

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U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to end CIA support to rebels further weakened the insurgency in western Syria, while also depriving Western policymakers of one of their few levers of pressure.

They can only watch as Iranian influence increases through a multitude of Shi’ite militias, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, that have been crucial to Assad’s gains and seem likely to remain in Syria for the foreseeable future, sealing Tehran’s ascendancy.

Assad’s opponents now hope his Russian allies will conclude he must be removed from power as the burden of stabilizing the country weighs and the West withholds reconstruction support.

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With hundreds of thousands of people killed and militias controlling swathes of the country, Assad’s opponents say Syria can never be stable again with him in power.

“There is little doubt that the Russians would like a political solution to the war. The war is costly for them, and the longer it lasts, the less it will appear to be a success for Putin,” said Rolf Holmboe, Research Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and former Danish Ambassador to Syria.

“But the Russians want a solution on their terms, which is one where Assad stays in power,” he said.

“The ceasefires do two things. They allow the Russians to take control of the political negotiations and look good internationally. But more importantly, they allow Assad and the Iranian-backed militias to free troops to grab the territory that Islamic State is about to lose.”


The eastwards advance has on occasion brought government forces and their Iranian-backed allies into conflict with the U.S. military and the forces it is backing in a separate campaign against Islamic State.

But the rival campaigns have mostly stayed out of each other’s way. Government forces have skirted the area where Kurdish-led militias supported by Washington are fighting Islamic State in Raqqa. The U.S.-led coalition has stressed it is not seeking war with Assad.

Bisected by the Euphrates River, Deir al-Zor and its oil resources are critical to the Syrian state. The province is entirely in the hands of IS except for a government stronghold in Deir al-Zor city and a nearby air base. It is also in the crosshairs of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

SDF spokesman Talal Silo told Reuters on Wednesday there would be an SDF campaign towards Deir al-Zor “in the near future”, though the SDF was still deciding whether it would be delayed until Raqqa was fully captured from Islamic State.

But questions remain over whether the government and its allies, or the U.S.-backed militias, have the required manpower. IS has rebased many of its fighters and leaders in Deir al-Zor. The Syrian army is drawing on the support of local tribal militias in its advances, local tribal figures say.

A Western-backed Syrian rebel with detailed knowledge of the area said Deir al-Zor would be a tough prospect. “Deir al-Zor tribes are more intertwined with those of Iraq,” the rebel said, describing them as religious hardliners.

Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think-tank, said Assad hoped to regain international legitimacy through the campaign against IS.

“They believe that by doing so they can get reconstruction money, and they believe that things are going to go back to the way they were before. That’s just not going to happen,” he said.

There has been no sign that Western states are ready to rehabilitate Assad, accused by Washington of repeatedly using chemical weapons during the war, most recently in April. Syria denies using chemical weapons.


The April attack triggered a U.S. missile strike against a Syrian airbase. But the U.S. response was calibrated to avoid confrontation with Moscow, and has not resulted in further such action.

Trump’s decision to shut down the CIA programme of support meanwhile played to Assad’s advantage and came as a blow to the opposition. Rebel sources say the programme will be phased out towards the end of the year.

Damascus has been pressing ahead with its strategy for pacifying western Syria, pursuing local agreements with rebellious areas that have resulted in thousands of rebel fighters being sent to insurgent areas of the north.

But significant areas of western Syria remain in rebel hands, notably Idlib province in the northwest, a corner of the southwest, an area north of Homs, and the Eastern Ghouta of Damascus.

In the southwestern province of Deraa, one of the areas in the U.S.-Russian truce, the government is seeking investment in reconstruction, the provincial governor told al-Watan newspaper, saying the “shelling phase” was over.

Shunned by the West, the government hopes China will be a major player in the reconstruction. Seeking to project an image of recovery, Damascus this week will host a trade fair.

“The regime is quite keen to imply by signals that it doesn’t care, that ‘we are fine, we are really utterly prepared just to sit atop ruins, and to speak to friends who will help us with our project’,” said a Western diplomat.

Mohanad Hage Ali, director of communications at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said the Assads have been “masters of the waiting game”. Time is on their side, he said. “But they have two challenges: political normalisation with the world, and the economic challenge, which is significant.”

(Writing by Tom Perry; editing by Giles Elgood)

After Military Shake-Up, Erdogan Says Turkey to Tackle Kurds in Syria

August 7, 2017

ISTANBUL — Days after a reshuffle of Turkey’s top military commanders, President Tayyip Erdogan has revived warnings of military action against Kurdish fighters in Syria that could set back the U.S.-led battle against Islamic State.

Kurdish militia are spearheading an assault against the hardline militants in their Syrian stronghold Raqqa, from where Islamic State has planned attacks around the world for the past three years.

But U.S. backing for the Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria has infuriated Turkey, which views their growing battlefield strength as a security threat due to a decades-old insurgency by the Kurdish PKK within in its borders.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan [Getty]

There have been regular exchanges of rocket and artillery fire in recent weeks between Turkish forces and YPG fighters who control part of Syria’s northwestern border.

Turkey, which has the second largest army in NATO after the United States, reinforced that section of the border at the weekend with artillery and tanks and Erdogan said Turkey was ready to take action.

“We will not leave the separatist organization in peace in both Iraq and Syria,” Erdogan said in a speech on Saturday in the eastern town of Malatya, referring to the YPG in Syria and PKK bases in Iraq. “We know that if we do not drain the swamp, we cannot get rid of flies.”

The YPG denies Turkish allegations of links with Kurdish militants inside Turkey, saying it is only interested in self-rule in Syria and warning that any Turkish assault will draw its fighters away from the battle against Islamic State which they are waging in an alliance with local Arab forces.

Erdogan’s comments follow the appointment of three new leaders of Turkey’s army, air force and navy last week – moves which analysts and officials said were at least partly aimed at preparing for any campaign against the YPG militia.

Turkish forces swept into north Syria last year to seize territory from Islamic State, while also cutting off Kurdish-controlled northeast Syria from the Kurdish pocket of Afrin further west. They thereby prevented Kurdish control over almost the whole sweep of the border – Ankara’s worst-case scenario.

Recent clashes have centered around the Arab towns of Tal Rifaat and Minnigh, near Afrin, which are held by the Kurdish YPG and allied fighters.

Erdogan said Turkey’s military incursion last year dealt a blow to “terrorist projects” in the region and promised further action. “We will make new and important moves soon,” he said.


His comments follow weeks of warnings from Turkey of possible military action against the YPG.

Washington’s concern to prevent any confrontation which deflects the Kurdish forces attacking Raqqa may help stay Ankara’s hand, but a Turkish government source said last week’s changes in military leadership have prepared the ground.

“With this new structure, some steps will be taken to be more active in the struggle against terror,” the source said. “A structure that acts according to the realities of the region will be formed”.

The battle for Raqqa has been underway since June, and a senior U.S. official said on Friday that 2,000 Islamic State fighters are believed to be still defending positions and “fighting for every last block” in the city.

Even after the recapture of Raqqa, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has left open the possibility of longer-term American assistance to the YPG.

The influence of Turkey’s once-dominant military has decreased dramatically since Erdogan came to power nearly 15 years ago. A purge in senior ranks since last year’s failed military coup has stripped it of 40 percent of top officers.

Last Wednesday’s appointments were issued by the Supreme Military Council, a body which despite its name is now dominated by politicians loyal to Erdogan.

“Of course the political will is behind these decisions, Erdogan’s preferences are behind them,” the source said. “But the restructuring of the Turkish Armed Forces and the demand for a more active fight against the PKK and Islamic State also has a role”.

Vacancies in senior military ranks resulting from the year-long purge would not be filled immediately, he said, but would be addressed over time.

While all three forces – air, land and sea – are under new command, focus has centered on the new army chief Yasar Guler. As head of Turkey’s gendarmerie, he was seen to take a tough line against the PKK and the movement of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen blamed by the government for the July 2016 coup attempt.

Ankara considers the YPG an extension of the PKK, which is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and European Union.

Can Kasapoglu, a defense analyst at the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), said the YPG “remains at the epicenter of Turkey’s threat perception”.

Guler was well-placed to address Turkey’s “transnational counter-terrorism priorities” and lead the campaign against Kurdish forces because of his past roles as chief of military intelligence, head of gendarmerie and postings to NATO.

“There is an undeniable likelihood that Turkey’s new top military chain of command might have to lead a major campaign against the YPG,” Kasapoglu said.

Guler is now favorite to take over from the overall head of the Turkish armed forces, General Hulusi Akar, who is due to step down in two years.

“Guler gets on well with members of Erdogan’s AK Party and is known for his hardline performance against the PKK…and the Gulen movement,” said Metin Gurcan an independent security analyst and retired Turkish military officer who now writes a column for Al-Monitor news website.

For the president, who faces a re-election campaign in 2019, a smooth succession from Akar to Guler would avoid any military upheaval which could send his plans off-course, Gurcan said.

“Until 2023, Erdogan should have smooth sailing without disruption from the Turkish armed forces.”

(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz and Dirimcan Barut in Ankara; editing by Philippa Fletcher)


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A Turkish tank on the Syrian border. (Source: Reuters)

Turkey is preparing to ramp up military operations in northern Syria, following a major set back for Ankara’s rebel allies in Idlib province and the continued advance of Kurdish militias, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said.

Syrian opposition forces in the Aleppo countryside have been reliant on the support of the Turkish army and air force, but the offensive by the Operation Euphrates Shield group has stalled in recent months.

“The Euphrates Shield was the dagger we introduced at the heart of the terrorist presence project in Syria, and we are determined to develop new campaigns,” Erdogan said during a speech, in which he discussed the opening of a number of facilities in the Turkish city of Malatya.

“We will take important steps to implement the new campaigns in the near future.”

The Turkish armed forces sent military reinforcements to the border of the city of Kilis, near to areas controlled by the forces of the militias allied to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Erdogan said the military build-up would strengthen Turkish forces deployed on the Turkish-Syrian border.

Turkish news agencies confirmed the increased military presence along the southern border against threats from Kurdish militants in war-torn northern Syria.

The official Anadolu news agency said on Saturday that Turkey dispatched artillery to Kilis province to back units there.

Turkish-backed rebel groups in Idlib province have also been forces to flee the region after an offensive by al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

About 2,000 Islamic State Fighters Remain in Syria’s Raqqa — Coalition observes car bomb kill SDF troops as danger persists

August 4, 2017

WASHINGTON — About 2,000 Islamic State fighters are estimated to remain in the Syrian city of Raqqa, fighting for their survival in the face of an offensive by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a senior U.S. official said on Friday.

Brett McGurk, U.S. special envoy for the coalition against Islamic State, said the SDF had cleared about 45 percent of Raqqa since launching an attack in early June to seize Islamic State’s stronghold in northern Syria.

“Today in Raqqa ISIS is fighting for every last block … and fighting for their own survival” McGurk told reporters.

Some 2,000 ISIS fighters are left in the city and “most likely will die in Raqqa,” he said.

The assault on Raqqa coincided with the final stages of a campaign to drive Islamic State from the Iraqi city of Mosul, where the Islamist militants were defeated last month.

McGurk said Islamic State has lost 27,000 square miles (70,000 sq km) of the territory it once held in the two countries – 78 percent of what they had seized in Iraq and 58 percent of what they held in Syria.

Before every military operation, coalition forces surround the area targeted to make sure Islamic State’s foreign fighters cannot escape and make their way out of Iraq and Syria, he said.

With the close cooperation of Turkish forces, the entire Syrian-Turkish border was sealed and Islamic State can no longer send militants trained in Syria for attacks in Europe and elsewhere, McGurk said.

The coalition has compiled a database of almost 19,000 names of Islamic State fighters gathered from cellphones, address books and other documents found on battlefields which it is sharing with the international police agency Interpol, he said.

Islamic State is also fighting the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias.

McGurk said “deconfliction” arrangements the U.S. and Russian militaries have made to avoid accidents as they operate separately in Syria were working well despite deteriorating diplomatic relations between the two countries.

President Donald Trump said on Thursday the U.S.-Russian relationship was at “an all-time and very dangerous low,” and Russia said new sanctions imposed by Washington meant an end to hopes for better ties with the Trump administration.

“So far we have not seen an effect on our engagement with the Russians when it comes to Syria,” McGurk said.

(Reporting by Washington Newsroom; Editing by Eric Beech and Tom Brown)



ISIS claimed that 40 fighters of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were killed after a VBIED (car bomb) driven by a Tajik suicide bomber targeted their gathering in the Al-Hal market in the southern part of Raqqa city. ISIS addded that the attack also resulted in the destruction of two Humvees, two vehicles and 4 SDF fortified positions.

40 SDF Fighters Reportedly Killed In ISIS VBIED Attack In Raqqa City (Map, Photos)

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40 SDF Fighters Reportedly Killed In ISIS VBIED Attack In Raqqa City (Map, Photos)

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40 SDF Fighters Reportedly Killed In ISIS VBIED Attack In Raqqa City (Map, Photos)

Click to see the full-size image

40 SDF Fighters Reportedly Killed In ISIS VBIED Attack In Raqqa City (Map, Photos)

Click to see the full-size image

Separately, ISIS claimed that its snipers killed 5 SDF fighters and wounded 4 others in Hisham bin Abdul Malik and Nazlat Shehadeh districts and near the Al-Atiq Mosque.

US-led coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon said that ISIS uses IEDs and VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device — or car bomb)   in 80% of its attacks on The SDF in Raqqa city. Dillon confirmed that SDF controls about 45% of the city and not 55% as claimed by several pro-Kurdish sources.

The SDF continued its advance from the eastern, western and southern directions on ISIS positions. Only 250 meters is left until SDF units meet and capture all the southern districts of Raqqa city.

US-led coalition warplanes carried out 14 airstrikes on ISIS positions in Raqqa city in the last 24 hours. Opposition sources claimed that eight civilians from one family lost their life as a result of a US airstrike on the city yesterday.

ISIS increased suicide attacks against the SDF in Raqqa city, after the US-backed force had besieged ISIS inside the city completely.

U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces holding foreign fighters with Islamic State group from Sweden

August 1, 2017

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Swedish radio says that U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces are holding foreign fighters with the Islamic State group from Sweden.

Tuesday’s report comes as the U.S-backed forces are battling in northern Syria to retake the city of Raqqa, IS’ de facto capital of the militants’ self-proclaimed caliphate.

The Ekot news program says jihadi fighters from other countries are also being held by the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, the Kurdish militia that forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Ekot didn’t provide details on how many jihadi fighters from Sweden are being held.

Sweden’s security service, known by its initials SAPO, has said that up to 300 people from Sweden have joined radical Muslims in the past six years.

There was no immediate comment from the Swedish Foreign Ministry.


Squeezed in Raqa, IS jihadists ramp up counter-attacks

July 29, 2017


© AFP / by Delil Souleiman | Smoke billows out from Syria’s Raqa after a US-led coalition air strike on July 28, 2017, as US-backed forces battle the Islamic State group inside the city

RAQA (SYRIA) (AFP) – As Islamic State group fighters steadily lose chunks of their Syrian bastion Raqa to a US-backed force, the jihadists are ramping up the ferocity of their counter-attacks.The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) first broke into Raqa in early June and have advanced in a pincer-like motion towards the heart of the city.

The alliance’s Arab and Kurdish fighters now hold half of Raqa, but as they tighten the noose around IS, the jihadist group appears to be lashing out.

“The closer we get to the city centre, the harder IS defends itself, because it’s completely besieged,” said Davram Dersem, an SDF field commander.

To defend Raqa, IS has deployed a barrage of car bombs, suicide bombers, weaponised drones, snipers, and mines scattered across the city.

“They’re cornered like a wounded animal. Raqa is their main stronghold — they’re not going to abandon it easily,” Dersem added.

The Kurdish commander spoke to AFP in the western Raqa neighbourhood of al-Daraiya.

Mortar shells crashed into surrounding neighbourhoods, which were also hit by the occasional air strike.

After IS captured Raqa in 2014, the group transformed the city into a symbol of its most macabre practices, including public beheadings.

Raqa was also thought to have been used as a hub for planning attacks overseas.

Now, much of it has been destroyed by the fierce fighting and US-led air strikes. Roofs have collapsed and streets are littered with rubble, metal, and glass.

– ‘Life-or-death battle’ –

In the adjacent district of Massaken al-Dubbat, 24-year-old SDF fighter Talal Sharif pointed at a devastated row of two-storey homes ahead.

“All of this destruction, it’s because of their car bombs. There have been at least four in each of these streets,” Sharif told AFP.

“Little by little, they’re being suffocated in Raqa. This is why they’re resisting.”

Sharif spoke confidently, but his face was marked by exhaustion after weeks of street-by-street battles.

When his unit recently stormed an IS-held neighbourhood, they stumbled on four enemy fighters sleeping inside a home.

“During the raid, one of the jihadists blew himself up, another two were killed, and one was taken prisoner,” Sharif recalled.

But if they don’t have access to belts of explosives or car bombs, IS fighters resort to something much simpler — grenades.

“In close combat, they just toss grenades. For them, it’s a life-or-death battle,” Devrem said.

Up to 50,000 civilians remain trapped in Raqa in increasingly dire circumstances, with little access to food, water, or life-saving medication, according to the United Nations.

The intensifying fight for Raqa has also forced tens of thousands of its residents to flee, dodging IS sniper fire, mines, and even US-led coalition air strikes.

On Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 21 civilians — including eight children from a single family — had been killed in “intensifying air strikes by the coalition” over the previous 24 hours.

The Britain-based monitor says more than 300 civilians including dozens of children have died since the SDF first broke into Raqa.

Another 467 IS jihadists and 219 SDF have also been killed in the fighting.

SDF advisor Nasser Hajj Mansour said the battle for Raqa is far from over.

“It could still be long. In the coming days, the battles will become more ferocious,” Mansour said.

“IS jihadists will either try to hide amongst the civilians or fight until the end.”

by Delil Souleiman

Trump’s Syria Muddle (Surrender?) — U.S. abandons its allies to the Russia-Assad-Iran axis

July 25, 2017

Iran and Russia won’t negotiate a cease-fire until they have to.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters, prepare to move for a battle against the Islamic state militants, in Raqqa, northeast Syria.
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters, prepare to move for a battle against the Islamic state militants, in Raqqa, northeast Syria. PHOTO: HUSSEIN MALLA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Does the Trump Administration have a policy in Syria worth the name? If so it isn’t obvious, and its recent decisions suggest that the White House may be willing to accommodate the Russian and Iranian goal of propping up Bashar Assad for the long term.

Last week the Administration disclosed that it has stopped assisting the anti-Assad Sunni Arab fighters whom the CIA has trained, equipped and funded since 2013. U.S. Special Operations Command chief Gen. Raymond Thomas told the Aspen Security Forum Friday that the decision to pull the plug was “based on an assessment of the nature of the program and what we are trying to accomplish and the viability of it going forward.”

That might make sense if anyone knew what the U.S. is trying to accomplish beyond ousting Islamic State from Raqqa in northern Syria. In that fight the Pentagon has resisted Russia and Iran by arming the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces and shooting down the Syria aircraft threatening them. Mr. Trump also launched cruise missiles to punish Mr. Assad after the strongman used chemical weapons.

The muddle is what the U.S. wants in Syria after the looming defeat of Islamic State. On that score the Trump Administration seems to want to find some agreement with Russia to stabilize Syria even if that means entrenching Mr. Assad and the Russian and Iranian military presence.

Cutting off the Sunni Free Syrian Army has long been a Russian and Iranian goal. FSA fighters in southern Syria have helped to contain the more radical Sunni opposition formerly known as the Nusra Front and they’ve fought Islamic State, but they also want to depose Mr. Assad. Not all of the Sunni rebels are as moderate as we’d like, but they aren’t al Qaeda or Islamic State. The arms cutoff caught the rebels by surprise and will make our allies in the region further doubt American reliability.

This follows the deal Mr. Trump struck at the G-20 meeting with Vladimir Putin for a cease-fire in southern Syria near its border with Israel and Jordan. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hailed it as a potential precedent for other parts of Syria, and Administration sources advertised that Israel and Jordan were on board.

But we later learned that Israel is far more skeptical. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a recent cabinet meeting that “Israel will welcome a genuine cease-fire in Syria, but this cease-fire must not enable the establishment of a military presence by Iran and its proxies in Syria in general and in southern Syria in particular.”

Yet by this point any territory controlled by Mr. Assad will come with Iranian military tentacles. Iran’s Hezbollah footsoldiers from Lebanon helped rescue Mr. Assad’s military, and they’d love to open another frontline against the Jewish state.

President Trump and Mr. Tillerson may want to negotiate a diplomatic settlement with Mr. Putin on Syria, and no doubt the Russian is pitching his “common front” line against radical Islamists. But CIA Director Mike Pompeo told the Aspen forum on Friday that Russia has done little fighting against Islamic State. Mr. Putin also has no incentive to give ground in Syria while his side is winning.

Russia and Iran know what they want in Syria: a reunified country under Mr. Assad’s control. Iran will then get another Arab city—Damascus—under its dominion. It will have another base from which to undermine U.S. allies in Jordan and attack Israel when the next war breaks out. Russia wants to show the world that its allies always win while keeping its air base and a Mediterranean port.

None of this is in the U.S. interest. The only way to reach an acceptable diplomatic solution is if Iran and Russia feel they are paying too large a price for their Syrian sojourn. This means more support for Mr. Assad’s enemies, not cutting them off without notice. And it means building up a Middle East coalition willing to fight Islamic State and resist Iran. The U.S. should also consider enforcing “safe zones” in Syria for anti-Assad forces.

It’s hard to imagine a stable Syria as long as Mr. Assad is in power. But if he stays, then the U.S. goal should be a divided country with safe areas for Sunnis and the Kurds who have helped liberate Raqqa. Then we can perhaps tolerate an Assad government that presides over a rump Syria dominated by Alawites. But none of that will happen if the U.S. abandons its allies to the Russia-Assad-Iran axis. And if abandoning Syria to Iran is the policy, then at least own up to it in public so everyone knows the score.

Appeared in the July 24, 2017, print edition.

US-backed forces in new push against IS in Raqa

July 14, 2017


© AFP | A member of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces looks at a damaged bridge in eastern Raqa on July 13, 2017 during an offensive to retake the city from the Islamic State group

RAQA (SYRIA) (AFP) – US-backed forces captured a new district from jihadists in Syria’s Raqa but struggled to hold their positions against suicide car bombers, a fighter in the city and a monitor said.The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, seized the eastern Batani district from the Islamic State group on Thursday.

“Late Thursday, they began an offensive on neighbouring Al-Rumeilah,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Clashes were raging on Friday as IS deployed its typical defensive tactics: weaponised drones, snipers, and improvised explosive devices, Abdel Rahman told AFP.

An SDF fighter near Al-Rumeilah told AFP on Thursday that suicide attackers were using explosives-laden vehicles to hold back the SDF.

“They’re sending booby-trapped cars towards our positions, and as they fall back, they’re laying mines,” said the 30-year-old fighter, who identified himself as Abu.

Civilians “can’t move. They can’t leave during the day because of snipers.”

Abu said his unit had managed to open up an escape route for residents of Al-Rumeilah, like 56-year-old Abdel Halim Ulaywi.

“Ten days ago, a strike hit our home and we ran inside quickly. My sister was hit in the stomach and started bleeding. She stayed alive for six days and then she died,” Ulaywi said.

He had tried to escape several times “but IS kept forcing us back,” he told AFP.

According to Abdel Rahman, IS has slowed down the SDF’s push in other parts of Raqa, including the Old City.

“The SDF is struggling to hold newly seized positions in the Old City because of intense sniping and escalating attacks by drones carrying bombs,” he said.

IS captured Raqa in early 2014, transforming the northern Syrian city into the scene of gruesome atrocities like public beheadings.

The SDF, backed by US-led coalition air strikes, spent months encircling the city before finally breaking into it on June 6.

The militia has since captured around 30 percent of the city, according to the British-based Observatory.

U.S.-Backed Forces Seize Town With IS Military Base Near Raqqa: SDF Official

July 11, 2017

BEIRUT — U.S.-backed Syrian militias have captured a town south of the city of Raqqa where Islamic State ran a major military base and training camp, a spokesman for the militias said on Tuesday.

An alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias fighting under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is trying to oust Islamic State from its headquarters in Raqqa.

SDF media official Mustafa Bali said the militias had seized the town of al-Ukeirshi, some 15 km (10 miles) downstream from Raqqa on the Euphrates river.

The SDF pushed into Raqqa last month after a long offensive, backed up by air strikes and special forces from the U.S.-led coalition.

A series of recent advances along the southern bank of the Euphrates have allowed the SDF to completely besiege the militants inside Raqqa and to press on south of the city.

The SDF alliance, spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, has also been waging fierce battles inside the Old City of Raqqa since last week, after U.S.-led coalition jets breached its historic walls.

In al-Ukeirshi, Islamic State killed scores of its own forces execution-style in 2015 for desertion or on accusations of treachery, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Islamic State named the training camp it established in the town after Osama bin Laden, the founder of the al-Qaeda militant group killed by U.S. forces in 2011.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis; Editing by Gareth Jones)

US-backed forces cut off last IS escape route from Raqa

June 29, 2017

Image result for fighters around Raqa, photos, june 2017

An American sniper with the Syriac Military Council (SMC), Christian fighters battling alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces against the Islamic State group, on the western outskirts of Raqa on June 27, 2017

BEIRUT (AFP) – US-backed forces cut off the last escape route for the Islamic State group from Raqa on Thursday, a monitor said, trapping the besieged jihadists inside their de facto Syrian capital.

Fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces captured two villages on the southern bank of the Euphrates River the jihadists had been passing through to withdraw from the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

It was the latest setback for IS, which declared its “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq three years ago but has since lost most of the territory it once controlled.

It came too as Iraqi forces announced the recapture of an iconic mosque in IS’s last major Iraqi bastion Mosul, prompting Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to declare “the end” of the “fake” jihadist state.

The SDF, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces backed by the US-led anti-IS coalition, broke into Raqa on June 6 after spending months chipping away at jihadist territory around the city.

Its fighters have since captured two eastern and two western districts of the city and are pushing towards the city centre, where IS fighters are holding tens of thousands of civilians.

The SDF had surrounded the jihadists from the north, east and west but they were still able to escape across the Euphrates, which forms the southern border of the city.

Thursday’s advance saw SDF fighters capture the villages of Kasrat Afnan and Kasab on the southern bank of the Euphrates, cutting off the route the jihadists were using to withdraw to territory IS controls in the Syrian desert and in Deir Ezzor province.

“The SDF has been able to completely encircle Raqa,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Observatory, which monitors Syria’s conflict through a network of sources on the ground.

– 60% of territory lost –

IS overran Raqa in mid-2014 as part of the offensive that saw it seize control of large parts of Syria and Iraq.

The city became infamous as the scene of some of the group’s worst atrocities, including public beheadings, and is thought to have been a hub for planning attacks overseas.

The United Nations estimates some 100,000 civilians remain in the city, with the jihadists accused of using them as human shields.

Marking the third anniversary of IS’s declaration of a state on June 29, 2014, a leading analysis firm said the jihadists had since lost more than 60 percent of their territory and 80 percent of their revenue.

In January 2015, IS controlled about 90,800 square kilometres, but by June 2017 that number dropped to 36,200, said IHS Markit.

The biggest fall was in the first six months of 2017, when IS lost around 24,000 square kilometres of territory.

“The Islamic State’s rise and fall has been characterised by rapid inflation, followed by steady decline,” said Columb Strack, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Markit.

“Three years after the ‘caliphate’ was declared, it is evident that the group’s governance project has failed,” Strack said.

IHS Markit said IS’s average monthly revenue had plummeted by 80 percent, from $81 million in the second quarter of 2015 to just $16 million in the second quarter of 2017.

The White House envoy to the coalition, Brett McGurk, visited one of the recaptured areas on Thursday, meeting with local officials in the northern Syrian town of Tabqa.

IS jihadists were ousted from Tabqa and an adjacent dam on May 10 during the SDF offensive around Raqa.

The visit came a day after McGurk met with members of the Raqa Civil Council, the body expected to run the northern city after IS’s expected fall there.

by Layal Abou Rahal

US-backed force has seized a quarter of Raqa from IS

June 26, 2017


BEIRUT (AFP) – US-backed fighters have seized a quarter of Syria’s Raqa from the Islamic State group, a monitor said Monday, less than three weeks after they first entered the northern city.

Arab and Kurdish militiamen from the Syrian Democratic Forces smashed into the jihadists’ main Syrian bastion on June 6 after a months-long drive to encircle it.

“Since the offensive began, the SDF have captured around 25 percent of the city’s built-up neighbourhoods,” Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP on Monday.

Backed by US-led coalition air strikes, the SDF has fully seized the southeastern districts of Al-Meshleb and Al-Senaa, as well as Al-Rumaniya and Sabahiya in the west, he said.

 Image result for Syrian Democratic Forces, troops, photos

From those neighbourhoods, they were bearing down on Raqa’s Old City in a pincer movement on Monday, with fighting raging in the western Al-Qadisiya district and parts of the city’s east.

SDF fighters also hold part of Division 17 — a former Syrian army base — and an adjacent sugar factory on the northern edges of the city.

“They want to cut off the city’s northern part, including the Division 17 base, so that there’s more pressure on IS in the city centre,” Abdel Rahman said.

The battle for Raqa is the SDF’s flagship offensive, with heavy backing from coalition air strikes, advisers, weapons and equipment.

The US-led coalition is also backing a major assault on the last IS-held pockets of Mosul in neighbouring Iraq.

IS overran Raqa in 2014, transforming it into the de facto Syrian capital of its self-declared “caliphate”.

It became infamous as the scene of some of the group’s worst atrocities, including public beheadings, and is thought to have been a hub for planning attacks overseas.

Syrian city Raqqa
Syrian city Raqqa