Posts Tagged ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’

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 WAR FOR DEIR AL-ZOR

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.

RULING “ATOP RUINS”

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)

US-backed Syrian fighters win strategic victory near Raqqa

August 12, 2017

France 24 and The Associated Press

© DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP | A fighter from the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) poses for a photo at sunset in the Syrian town of Ain Issi, some 50 kilometres north of Raqqa.

Text by NEWS WIRES

Latest update : 2017-08-12

US-backed Syrian fighters advancing on the Islamic State group from the eastern and western parts of the northern city of Raqqa have linked up for the first time since launching their offensive on IS’ de facto capital, officials said Friday.

Though the development marked a significant milestone in the battle for the IS stronghold, a USmilitary spokesman cautioned that there is still tough fighting ahead before Raqqa is completely taken from the militants.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, under the cover of US-backed coalition airstrikes, launched a wide offensive to capture the city on June 6 and have managed so far to take about half the city.

The linkup of the eastern and western fronts deprives IS from access to the Euphrates River — and effectively leaves the remaining militants in Raqqa and thousands of civilians surrounded.

US Army Col. Ryan Dillon said there remains still tough fighting ahead and that although the linkup of the Syrian opposition fighters’ east and west axis on the southern edge of Raqqa was significant, this does not in fact cut the city in two.

Dillon told The Associated Press in an email that the significance is that the SDF, despite IS’ best efforts, have successfully battled across the entire city from both sides and have joined forces. The US spokesman said this shows the steady progress the SDF fighters are making against IS in the militants’ self-declared capital.

“The fighting is ongoing from room to room and from house to house,” said Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media center. Bali also confirmed that SDF fighters pushing from opposite sides of the city have met up.

Bali said by telephone from northern Syria that the key difficulty facing advancing SDF fighters is to avoid striking civilians used by IS as human shields.

“A VERY DIFFICULT SITUATION FOR CIVILIANS” – FRANCE 24 MIDDLE EAST CORRESPONDENT ADAM PLETTS

A ‘milestone’

The top US envoy for the international coalition against the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, tweeted about the linkup of the two fronts, describing it as a “milestone” that is tightening the noose around IS.

Also Friday, neighboring Turkey introduced new regulations at a border crossing with northwestern Syria, allowing only the transport of humanitarian aid, after an al-Qaida-linked group took control of the Syrian post.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said after Friday prayers in Istanbul that the Cilvegozu crossing in southern Turkey would remain open for food, medicine and some supplies to go across. Turkey’s Cilvegozu stands across from the Bab al-Hawa in Syria’s Idlib province.

The al-Qaida-linked militant group Levant Liberation Committee captured the crossing after battles with the ultraconservative Syrian rebel Ahrar al-Sham group last month.

Erdogan said Turkey “cannot allow the passage of weapons,” suggesting humanitarian aid has “practically turned into an armament process.”

Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency reported a three-kilometer tailback at the Oncupinar border crossing, located further east, after trucks were rerouted from Cilvegozu.

Meanwhile, the UN migration agency said Friday that over 600,000 displaced Syrians have returned to their homes this year, citing an increasing trend of returns while warning the situation remains “not sustainable.”

International Organisation for Migration spokeswoman Olivia Headon said the 602,759 returns between January and July was on track to surpass the figure of 685,000 returns for all of 2016.

But she also cautioned about the huge number of displaced Syrians this year — nearly 809,000.

IOM said that its partner agencies have found that two-thirds of the returnees have gone to the northern Aleppo governorate, where government forces ousted rebels from the city of Aleppo last year.

A third of the returnees said they went back to “protect their assets” while one-quarter cited “improved economic conditions,” IOM said.

(AP)

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.

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Food access in Syria’s Raqa at ‘critical turning point’: NGOs

July 31, 2017

AFP

© AFP/File | Members of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces move through destroyed buildings in Raqa on July 28, 2017

BEIRUT (AFP) – Food access in Syria’s battle-torn Raqa is now at “a critical turning point,” aid organisations said Monday, with markets shuttered and residents depending fully on their dwindling stockpiles.

Raqa has been gripped by fierce fighting for nearly two months and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have ousted the Islamic State group from half of the northern city.

An assessment released Monday by REACH, a network of humanitarian organisations operating around Raqa, painted an increasingly dire picture.

“While in previous weeks residents were able to purchase some food at markets, the majority of key informants reported that residents are now relying entirely on food stored from previous weeks,” it said.

“Food markets, which were functioning sporadically three weeks ago, are generally no longer in operation.”

Bread was consistently found in 15 of Raqa’s 24 neighbourhoods several weeks ago. Now it is no longer regularly available anywhere in the city.

Food prices have also skyrocketed, forcing residents to eat smaller meals or skip them entirely, the report said.

Raqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), an activist collective publishing news from inside the city, has also warned of food problems.

“The bakeries are closed because there’s no fuel or flour, and the shopowners have fled. Whatever flour is here is spoiled and full of worms,” RBSS activist Husaam Eesa told AFP earlier this month.

“People can’t store things in the refrigerators because there’s no electricity. They can’t cook because there’s no water.”

The United Nations estimates that between 20,000 and 50,000 people are still in Raqa, but REACH said the number could be as low as 10,000.

It estimated that the most densely populated district was Al-Hurriya in the north, with at most 5,000 residents, and that 14 out of the 24 neighbourhoods were abandoned or almost abandoned.

According to REACH, only one wing of Raqa’s state hospital is still functioning but offers just basic first aid.

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) echoed those concerns on Monday, saying wounded civilians were often trapped in the city for days or weeks without medical care.

“In Raqa city, if you don’t die from airstrikes, you die by mortar fire; if not by mortars then by sniper shots; if not by snipers, then by an explosive device,” a 41-year-old with shrapnel wounds to his chest told MSF after he fled Raqa.

“And if you get to live, you are besieged by hunger and thirst, as there is no food, no water, no electricity.”

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.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/trumps-syria-muddle-1500845200?mod=e2two

US-backed forces in new push against IS in Raqa

July 14, 2017

AFP

© 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.

The Latest: Turkey Says It May Strike Syrian Kurds — Cross-border operation being discussed

July 4, 2017

BEIRUT — The Latest on the conflict in Syria (all times local):

11:50 a.m.

Turkey says it may launch a cross-border operation into the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin in northern Syria if it constitutes a “constant security threat.”

Defense Minister Fikri Isik told state-run television TRT on Tuesday that Turkey’s military will continue to respond to the “slightest fire” into Turkish territory from Afrin. He spoke hours after reports that Turkey’s military retaliated overnight to fire from areas controlled by Syrian Kurdish groups.

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Afrin is at the far west

Turkey considers the main Syrian Kurdish militia, which is supported by the United States, to be an extension of Kurdish rebels fighting in Turkey. The U.S. views the Syrian Kurds as the most effective ground force battling the Islamic State group in Syria.

Last year, Turkey sent troops into Syria to help Syrian opposition forces battling to oust Islamic State militants from another border region and to curb the territorial advances of the Syrian Kurdish militia.

Isik said: “We would not abstain from doing what is necessary if Afrin becomes a constant security threat.”

8:45 p.m.

The U.S. military says allied Syrian forces have breached the wall around Raqqa’s Old City, where they are fighting to drive Islamic State militants from the extremists’ self-declared capital.

Central Command said in a statement Monday that by punching through two “small portions” of the Rafiqah Wall they were able to enter the Old City while avoiding booby traps and IS snipers. It says the strikes left most of the 2,500-meter (yard) wall intact.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia, is battling IS in Raqqa with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes and U.S. special operations forces.

Several IS leaders were once based in Raqqa, where the group is believed to have plotted attacks in Europe. The loss of the northern Syrian city would deal a major blow to IS.

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

June 26, 2017

AFP

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
© SPUTNIK/ HIKMET DURGUN
Syrian city Raqqa

 

IS group’s armed drones attack from the skies in battle for Raqqa

June 26, 2017

AFP

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© Screengrab FRANCE 24

Video by James ANDRE , Mayssa AWAD

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2017-06-26

The Islamic State (IS) group is using drones rigged with munitions in the battle for the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa, a FRANCE 24 team inside the jihadist group’s highly dangerous self-proclaimed capital discovers.

While entering Raqqa from the eastern side, past dusty, desolate neighbourhoods, a nearby explosion briefly rocks the armored vehicle carrying a FRANCE 24 team and fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters battling the IS group in the heart of its de facto capital is facing a new, technologically advanced threat from the skies.

“A drone has targeted our vehicle. The bomb fell 50 metres away,” a female Kurdish fighter in the vehicle explains.

The IS group is targeting US-backed forces with drones rigged with grenade-sized munitions with a relatively high degree of accuracy. The small, agile unmanned aerial vehicles are very difficult to shoot down and are slowing down the advance into the heart of the Syrian city.

On the roof of one of the tallest buildings in the area, SDF fighters find it impossible to set up anti-sniper positions since the jihadist group’s attacks from the skies are fairly frequent.

‘They do this every day’

“Two to three drones rotate everyday here. They target our logistic lines and our ammunition depots. So far this morning, we have been bombed three times. By the end of the day, they will have targeted us 15 to 16 times. They do this every day,” explains Zargos, an SDF fighter.

On the ground, the SDF fighters have made holes in the building’s walls so they can move around undetected.

Image may contain: 1 person, standing and outdoor

U.S. Special Operations Forces members inspect a drone used by Islamic State militants to drop explosives on Iraqi forces, in Mosul on Jan. 25. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

Scanning the skies from the roof, an SDF commander gives out an alert for his fighters to take cover from an approaching drone. But the drone attacks are so frequent, the SDF fighters react reluctantly.

The IS group is also using drones in the battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul. But here in Raqqa, unlike in Mosul, the anti-IS coalition has limited anti-drone stopping systems.

The US is looking to send additional anti-drone equipment and troops into Syria, a Pentagon source told the Washington Post earlier this month. But it is unclear what type of anti-drone systems and troops might be sent into Syria if the Pentagon decides to bolster its defenses there.

In the battle for Raqqa, the threat also comes from the skies, forcing SDF troops to adapt to the new scenario. Coalition troops these days only move under cover, which is efficient, but has been slowing down the advance into this symbolic city in the war against the IS group.