Posts Tagged ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’

After Raqqa, the U.S. sees Russia, Assad looming over remaining Syrian battlefield

October 20, 2017

Rapid gains by government forces may have cut off planned advances by U.S.-backed fighters.

By Karen DeYoungLiz Sly

     The Washington Post

Female fighters with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces celebrate Oct. 19, 2017, in Raqqa, Syria, beneath a banner of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has been designated a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)
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Rapid advances by Russian- and Iranian-backed government forces in eastern Syria are thwarting the U.S. military’s hopes of pressing deeper into Islamic State territory after winning the battle for Raqqa.

An expansion of territory held by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad is also likely to provide Assad with additional leverage in political negotiations over Syria’s future, talks the United Nations hopes to reconvene next month.

In a statement this week, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said the “latest developments” in Syria pointed “to the urgent need to reinvigorate the political process.”

The recent government gains have cut off the approach of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces to remaining militant strongholds in the southeastern part of the country, including the crucial town of Bukamal near the Syria-Iraq border.

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Image result for russian airstrikes, syria, photos
Russian airstrikes

Aided by Russian airstrikes, in apparent violation of a deconfliction line along the Euphrates River that U.S. officials said had been tentatively agreed on with Moscow, government forces have encircled and claimed control of another location that had been on the wish list of U.S. military planners — the town of Mayadeen, where many senior Islamic State leaders are thought to have been hiding. The militants put up little resistance, and most appear to have escaped.

The rise and fall of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria VIEW GRAPHIC
[Graphic: The rise and fall of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria]

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/after-raqqa-the-us-sees-russia-assad-looming-over-remaining-syrian-battlefield/2017/10/19/0281c7da-b41e-11e7-be94-fabb0f1e9ffb_story.html?utm_term=.3f2caa887145

The unexpected militant withdrawal has “thrown for a loop” U.S. military assumptions that it could beat overstretched government forces in a race to the key river strongholds, said Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “Because ISIS has decided not to put up a tough fight against Assad’s forces,” Heras said, “it has forced a change of assumptions about what the situation will look like on the ground.”

The advance has also taken government forces, and supporting Russian strikes, east of the river and into Syria’s main oil-producing region of Deir al-Zour province, once a key source of Islamic State revenue.

“I’m not going to address whether or not an agreement or deconfliction line has been broken,” Army Col. Ryan S. Dillon, spokesman for counter-Islamic State military operations, said in a telephone interview from Baghdad. “That’s why we maintain an open dialogue” with Russia.

In addition to daily contact between the two militaries on a hotline, U.S. and Russian generals have held two face-to-face meetings in recent weeks, at least one of them in Jordan, to discuss the increasing proximity of their air operations in the Euphrates River valley, and that of the separate ground forces they back.

Progress against the Islamic State in Syria has been measured since 2016 by towns and cities seized from militant control along the Euphrates by the SDF, a combination of Arab and Syrian Kurdish fighters, aided by U.S. air power and advisers. Manbij, near the Turkish border in the north, was recaptured in 2016, followed by Tabqa and now Raqqa.

After Raqqa, the intention was to proceed downriver through Mayadeen to Bukamal, where SDF fighters would link up with Iraqi government forces trying to regain control over the Islamic State-controlled town of Qaim, just across the border inside Iraq. A major goal was to block Iran from securing a land corridor, through Iraq, between Tehran and Damascus.

Dillon declined to say whether the U.S. military’s plans had changed.

“There are always plans,” Dillon said. “You don’t fight the plan, you fight the enemy . . . where they are.” The military, he said, was not concerned with “greater policy decisions” over who fought the militants or who controlled Syria, as long as it was not the Islamic State.

“We’re not in a race, we’re not in the land-grab business. We’re here to defeat ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

Others were less sanguine about the effect of government gains, predicting that Assad’s ability to remain in power would leave open the door for Islamic State militants, gone to ground in the vast desert that spans the Syria-Iraq border, to regroup.

“That’s what you get when you make a deal with the Russians,” said Jennifer Cafarella of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, which monitors the fighting in Syria. “What we see is a push by the regime and its backers to seize key infrastructure, such as oil and gas fields, and to position to disrupt U.S.-led anti-ISIS operations further down the Euphrates.”

With the remaining Islamic State strongholds in Syria increasingly likely to fall into ­Syrian government hands, the Trump administration will have to decide whether the U.S. military remains in Syria to protect areas that have been captured by the SDF — which is dominated by Syrian Kurds of the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.

On Thursday, female YPG fighters marked the victory in Raqqa by raising a giant banner of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan over the central square where the Islamic State carried out most of its grisly executions. Ocalan, who heads Turkey’s militant Kurdish movement, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is serving a prison sentence in Turkey for terrorism.

The public declaration of fealty to Ocalan by the Syrian Kurds who led the Raqqa offensive points to one of the many challenges confronting the Trump administration as it seeks to forge a coherent policy for the post-Islamic State era. Although the Syrian Kurds have admitted many Arabs into their ranks, they have retained overall control of the SDF coalition’s command and ideology.

Turkey, which shares a long border with the autonomous enclave the Kurds have established in northeastern Syria, is enraged at the U.S. military’s support for the SDF, which it considers an appendage of Ocalan’s terrorist movement. That leaves the SDF vulnerable to potential military action by Turkey to quell its aspirations for a ministate in Syria.

Many Syrian Arabs are also deeply uncomfortable about the prospect of being governed by Kurds. Raqqa is an almost wholly Arab city, and the photographs of the Ocalan banner that circulated on social media triggered widespread condemnation by Arabs on Thursday.

“For us Raqqans, we do not know whether the SDF taking over the city and expelling ISIS is a liberation or an occupation,” Tareq Sham, a former Raqqa resident living in Turkey, wrote on his Facebook page. “The vast majority of us consider what happened a switch between two occupiers.”

Remaining in Syria to protect its Kurdish allies risks embroiling the United States in possible future conflicts between Arabs and Kurds, and between Turkey and the Kurds.

The Kurds are also vulnerable to the Syrian government’s declared ambition to reclaim all of the territory it lost in the war that began as a political rebellion in 2011. Much of what happens in Raqqa will depend on the speed and success of reconstruction there. U.S. special envoy Brett McGurk is visiting the Raqqa area, accompanied by Saudi Arabian Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan, whose government the Trump administration hopes will put up funds for the effort.

Sly reported from Beirut.

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G7 to focus on foreign fighter fallout from rout of IS

October 19, 2017

AFP

© AFP / by Ella IDE | A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) walks through a heavily damaged a street in Raqa, Syria on October 18, 2017

ISCHIA (ITALY) (AFP) – The threat of fresh attacks on the West by foreign fighters fleeing the fallen Islamic State stronghold of Raqa is set to dominate a G7 meeting of interior ministers in Italy.The two-day gathering, which kicks off Thursday on the Italian island of Ischia, comes just days after US-backed forces took full control of the jihadists’ de facto Syrian capital.

Most foreign fighters are believed to have fled over the past few months. Experts say those who stayed are now likely to head for Turkey in the hope of travelling on to Europe to seek revenge for the destruction of the “caliphate”.

Tens of thousands of citizens from Western countries travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the group between 2014 and 2016, including extremists who then returned home and staged attacks that claimed dozens of lives.

France, whose some 1,000 nationals were among the biggest contingent of overseas recruits to join IS, stated frankly this weekend that it would be “for the best” if jihadists die fighting.

While border crossings have since tightened making it more difficult for fighters to return, security experts have warned of renewed possibilities of strikes as the pressure on IS intensifies.

“With an Islamic military defeat in Iraq and Syria we could find ourselves facing a return diaspora of foreign fighters,” Italy’s Interior Minister Marco Minniti told a parliamentary committee last week.

“There are an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 foreign fighters from 100 countries. Some of them have been killed of course, but… it’s possible some of the others will try to return home, to northern Africa and Europe,” he said.

– Catching boats to Europe –

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor of the war, said a group of 130-150 foreign fighters, including Europeans, had turned themselves in before the end of the battle in Raqa.

Other reports suggested a convoy of foreign fighters had been able to escape the city towards IS-held territory, a claim denied categorically by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) officials.

The SDF is expected to contact the home countries of any foreign fighters it holds, to discuss the possibility of turning them over to face prosecution.

But captured fighters could prove a legal headache, with questions raised over what evidence, collected by whom, would be used in a domestic court. Jihadists also become security risks in jails for their potential to radicalise.

French European lawmaker Arnaud Danjean said Wednesday there would be “negotiations with the countries concerned” over what to do with returners.

Minniti warned fighters could take advantage of the confusion and “use the human trafficking routes” to return home — raising the spectre of extremists embarking on the migrant boats which regularly head to Italy.

It meant controversial efforts currently spearheaded by Italy to close the land and sea trafficking routes which cross Africa into Libya and on across the central Mediterranean sea to Europe were “essential”, he added.

– Intelligence war –

The Seven, from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States, will also tackle the hot issue of terrorism online, with analysts warning IS’s loss of territory will turn street-to-street fighting into an intelligence war.

The ministers are due to arrive Thursday afternoon at a medieval castle on the volcanic island off Naples, before retiring for an informal dinner and knuckling down to working sessions on Friday.

They are set to be joined by the EU commissioner for migration Dimitris Avramopoulos, European safety commissioner Julian King, and Juergen Stock, secretary general of the international police body Interpol.

In a G7 first, representatives from Internet giants Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter will also be taking part.

by Ella IDE
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U.S.-Backed Forces Say They Have Taken Raqqa, Islamic State’s Last Urban Stronghold

October 18, 2017
U.S.-backed forces said they have captured Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, wrenching away the terror group’s last major urban stronghold in the Middle East.

By Maria Abi-Habib
The Wall Street Journal

Updated Oct. 17, 2017 6:46 p.m. ET

BEIRUT—U.S.-backed forces said they have captured Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, driving the extremists from a Syrian city that became synonymous with their reign of terror and was used as a nerve center to stage attacks on the West.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes and American special forces on the ground, on Tuesday said they had captured Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa.Photo: Erik De Castro/Reuters

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes and American special forces on the ground, on Tuesday said they had secured a sports stadium in the city the group had converted into a fortified compound for its final stand.

“The military operations within the city are completely over,” said Talal Silo, a spokesman for the SDF, which led the monthslong battle against Islamic State in Raqqa. “We are combing through the city to make sure there are no sleeper cells and to defuse the mines.”

Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State, said the extremist group is “on the verge of a devastating defeat,” adding that 90% of Raqqa has been cleared.

Islamic State hasn’t commented.

With the fall of Raqqa—Islamic State’s last major urban stronghold in the Middle East—the self-declared caliphate is meeting an inglorious end.

The first significant city to come under Islamic State’s control, in 2014, Raqqa became a template for the group’s brutality. Militants in the city carried out public beheadings for blasphemy and crucifixions for murder. Child soldiers were radicalized and taught to kill. The city also held some of the most important assets and institutions for the group’s statelike operations in Syria, such as its highest courts.

Raqqa became a funnel for thousands of people from places as disparate as the U.K., China and Saudi Arabia to join the group. The recruits were processed and given their marching orders in the city, and some were given explosives training before being shuttled back to Europe to plan attacks there, Western officials said.

But Islamic State’s empire is now largely destroyed. At the height of its power in 2014, the group ruled a contiguous territory in Iraq and Syria the size of Belgium, while affiliates have sprung up from Nigeria to the Philippines. Now many of the cities it occupied have been reduced to rubble.

At the same time, Islamic State leaves in its wake radicalized youth and an extensive internet network still actively recruiting new jihadists and proselytizing an extremist ideology. The group’s initial rise showcased its strategy of preying on weak nations.

For months, U.S. war planners have warned the insurgency is seeking to exploit a power vacuum in Libya. Islamic State in the Sahara, a new affiliate, killed four U.S. Green Berets in an ambush in Niger this month.

Even if Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is killed in the near term, U.S. officials say the group will continue, much as al Qaeda did after Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011. The U.S. and its allies, as well as other countries that have fought Islamic State and other militant groups in recent decades, have been unable to kill off the extremist ideology that feeds the groups.

“The communist party didn’t die with the death of Stalin. Our ideology will persist,” one Islamic State supporter said recently in an online forum.

In a defiant speech in September, Mr. Baghdadi said that although his fighters were being uprooted across the Middle East, his organization’s ideology and appeal will live on.

“We will remain steadfast, patient,” he vowed, and laid out the group’s strategy for defeating the U.S. and its allies by drawing them into costly, asymmetrical warfare to wear them down.

U.S. and European officials predict that Islamic State will prioritize attacking Western capitals to stay in the headlines and remain relevant as the group is pushed out of the last patches of territory it holds in eastern Syria and western Iraq.

Related

  • Iraqis Push Deeper Into Kurdish Areas
  • Middle East Crossroads: Simmering Conflicts Flare Up as Islamic State Fades
  • Europe Doesn’t Expect Influx of Returning ISIS Fighters

In Washington, Pentagon officials have long expected a defeated Islamic State to evolve into an general insurgency, potentially aligning with al Qaeda in Syria and fueling sectarian tensions by presenting itself as a Sunni vanguard against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian backers.

Newly uprooted fighters also are likely to pose a persisting threat by moving about the region, hovering in border areas or even trying to exploit the territorial struggle in Iraq between Iraqi forces and Kurdish units, experts said on Tuesday. The departure of Kurdish fighters from areas such as Kirkuk, Sinjar and Khanaqin in the east could create security gaps, said Jennifer Cafarella, an analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

“ISIS has the intent and likely the capability to penetrate behind defensive lines of anti-ISIS forces and could choose to exploit the disruption caused by recent massive troop movements in Iraq,” Ms. Cafarella said. “How does the Iraqi government intend to govern all the territory it jus t took?”

The U.S. military estimates there are roughly 100 Islamic State fighters remaining in Raqqa, from a peak of 2,500. Some of those fighters have resettled in other parts of Syria and Iraq where about 6,500 militants remain, said Col. Dillon, the coalition spokesman. About 400 have surrendered over the past month, he added. By comparison, a Defense Intelligence analysis concluded there are as many as 1,500 Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan, 1,000 in Egypt and 500 in Libya.

On Tuesday, Col. Dillon stressed that the fight against the extremists isn’t over and there are still swaths of territory on the Iraqi-Syrian border still under militant control.

A Syrian Democratic Forces fighter gestures the “V” sign at the frontline in Raqqa on Oct. 16.Photo: rodi said/Reuters

“Yes, ISIS will be defeated militarily, but we know that there still is going to be the ideology and the continued insurgent activity as they devolve into that,” he said.

The U.S. military trained roughly 1,000 local residents to conduct security in Raqqa after Islamic State’s demise. But the challenges before such a force already have emerged. Col. Dillon said the head of that force was killed on Monday by an explosive.

The head of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5 chief Andrew Parker, said on Tuesday in a rare public speech that there has been a dramatic uptick in the threat of Islamist extremism to the U.K. He said the types of threats are changing rapidly and sometimes accelerate from inception to action in days, leaving authorities with a smaller window to intervene.

A U.S. official specializing in European security said that while intelligence experts had predicted a flow of foreign fighters returning to Europe, so far it hasn’t happened. The U.S. official cautioned the trend could reverse, but for now European officials have told their counterparts they don’t expect the fall of Raqqa to trigger a migration of militants to Europe to launch attacks.

Western counterterrorism officials say they worry Islamic State will try to take advantage of the crisis facing Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims.

A Syrian Democratic Forces commander walks with her group’s flag at Al-Naim square in Raqqa on Tuesday.Photo: BULENT KILIC/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

“They’re already messaging that the Rohingya are the new Palestinians, using it to recruit,” one U.S. counterterrorism official said. “Southeast Asia is the new concern.”

Islamic State’s rise and fall has divided and reshaped Syria.

Many Syrians and top American officials blame Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the rise of Islamic State. In the first years of the Syrian uprising, which began in 2011, Mr. Assad emptied Syrian prisons of those convicted of terrorism, filling the cells with more-liberal activists—many of whom had peacefully demonstrated to demand political change.

The regime’s military focused on attacking rebel groups while allowing Islamic State to grow, launching its first major assault against the extremist group in 2015, four years after the uprising began.

“Assad wanted Islamic State to rise so the world would have to choose between terrorism and him,” said one Arab diplomat, echoing a sentiment expressed by Western counterparts.

Now, nearly seven years into Syria’s civil war, the U.S. and its allies, from the U.K. to Saudi Arabia, have largely stopped funding the Syrian rebels and have begun preparing for Mr. Assad to remain in power.

The rebels are deeply fractured, with many living in exile, while Mr. Assad has slowly regained control over the country with the help of Iran, Russia and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

Syrian Kurds, who have made up the bulk of the U.S.-backed forces fighting Islamic State, have, meanwhile, used the conflict to carve out their own autonomous region across northern Syria. But with the long-term presence of the U.S. in Syria in serious doubt, the Kurds fear they will become the regime’s next target as Mr. Assad tries to consolidate control over the entire country.

Raqqa residents have borne much of the consequences of Islamic State’s rise. As foreign fighters flocked to the city to join Islamic State, some residents sought to defy the terror group and expose the atrocities they committed against fellow Muslims to dissuade potential recruits from joining. An underground resistance emerged, including the activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

They secretly filmed Islamic State brutality against ordinary Syrians and posted it online, countering the extremists’ narrative of a glorious caliphate ruling over millions of adoring and loyal Syrian Muslims.

Mohamad al-Mosari, an activist with Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, said recently, “One thousand four hundred years of this city’s history is wiped out.”

— Nazih Osseiran and Raja Abdulrahim in Beirut, Nour Alakraa in Berlin, Julian E. Barnes in Brussels, Jenny Gross in London and Nancy A. Youssef in Washington contributed to this article.

Write to Maria Abi-Habib at maria.habib@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications Four U.S. Green Berets were killed in an ambush in Niger earlier this month. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated three Green Berets were killed. Oct. 17, 2017

https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-backed-forces-say-they-have-captured-de-facto-islamic-state-capital-1508242244

US-backed forces take Raqa hospital from IS holdouts

October 17, 2017

AFP

© AFP / by Gihad Darwish with Maya Gebeily in Kobane | Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces celebrate at the frontline in the Islamic State (IS) group’s crumbling stronghold of Raqa on October 16, 2017

RAQA (SYRIA) (AFP) – US-backed forces said Tuesday they had retaken the main hospital in Syria’s Raqa from the Islamic State group, leaving the jihadists to make a last stand around the city’s stadium.The capture of the state hospital brought the Syrian Democratic Forces closer to completing their conquest of Raqa, a northern city that was once the de facto capital of IS-held territory.

“The national hospital was liberated and… 22 foreign mercenaries were killed,” the SDF said. “Clashes continue with great intensity near the municipal stadium.”

The jihadists also suffered setbacks Tuesday in the eastern Syrian region of Deir Ezzor, where Russian-backed regime forces retook swathes of territory, further reducing a “caliphate” that three years ago was roughly the size of Britain.

In Raqa, only about 300 IS fighters, mostly foreigners, were believed to remain in the last neighbourhoods still out of the control of the SDF, a Kurdish-Arab alliance supported by the US-led coalition battling IS in Syria and Iraq.

The retaking of the hospital followed Monday’s seizure by the SDF of an infamous roundabout used by the jihadists for public beheadings and crucifixions.

The Al-Naim traffic circle had been dubbed the “Roundabout of Hell” by residents under IS’s more than three years of rule over the city.

As the sun was setting over Raqa’s west Monday, a group of fighters gathered for the dabkeh — the jumpy line dance traditional in the Middle East — to celebrate their native city’s near-recapture.

Three months after Iraqi forces retook Iraq’s Mosul, the largest city the jihadist group controlled, the loss of Raqa will be another nail in the coffin of IS’s brutal experiment in statehood.

Image result for Al-Naim traffic circle, photos

– End of battle –

The breakthrough in the operation to retake Raqa, which was launched on June 6, came after a deal was struck allowing the evacuation in recent days of civilians who had been held as human shields.

Under the deal, a total of 275 Syrian IS fighters and relatives also surrendered to the SDF, though it was unclear whether they would be given safe passage elsewhere.

The final phase of the Raqa battle was launched on Sunday after a last batch of haggard-looking civilians was able to escape the devastated city.

The SDF said it may achieve full victory in Raqa very soon, but stressed that fierce fighting was still under way near the stadium.

“The end of the battle is fast approaching, maybe today or tomorrow,” SDF spokesman Talal Sello told AFP.

After IS captured Raqa in 2014, the city become synonymous with the jihadist group’s worst abuses and was transformed into a planning centre for attacks abroad.

After Raqa, anti-IS efforts will focus on Deir Ezzor province, where the jihadists still control areas around the town of Mayadeen, part of provincial capital Deir Ezzor, as well as several villages and remote desert areas.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday that regime forces had brought the entire area stretching between Deir Ezzor and Mayadeen under their control following a major military offensive.

“These are not desert areas, they are villages along the Euphrates (river) that were IS strongholds,” the Britain-based monitoring group said.

“The Islamic State group is collapsing under pressure from the regime in Deir Ezzor province,” it said.

IS also controls territory in neighbouring regions on the Iraqi side of the border, where they are facing another US-backed offensive by Iraqi pro-government forces.

by Gihad Darwish with Maya Gebeily in Kobane

US-backed forces in toughest Raqa fighting yet

October 16, 2017

AFP

© AFP | Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) take a position inside a building on the eastern frontline of Raqa on October 5, 2017

BEIRUT (AFP) – The US-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance fighting to wrest the Syrian city of Raqa from the Islamic State group was engaged Monday in its toughest fighting yet, a spokeswoman said.”The Syrian Democratic Forces are currently waging their toughest battles yet,” said Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, spokeswoman for the operation launched in early June to retake IS’s one-time de facto Syrian capital.

An estimated 300 diehard jihadists holding no more than 10 percent of the eastern city were bracing for a bloody last stand after the weekend evacuation of most civilians set the stage for the SDF’s final assault.

The latest fighting “will bring an end to Daesh’s presence, meaning they can choose between surrendering and dying,” Sheikh Ahmed told AFP, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

The jihadists are trapped and the outcome of the battle is in no doubt but flushing out a group of mostly foreign fighters who have nothing to lose and who had months to prepare remains a perilous task.

“The IS elements that are still there are resisting,” the spokeswoman said, adding that the neighbourhoods where fighting is under way “are fortified and heavily mined areas.”

 

U.S.-allied forces begin final assault on Islamic State in Syria’s Raqqa

October 16, 2017
By Bassem Mroue
Associated Press
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U.S.-backed Syrian fighters launched an operation to retake the last Islamic State-held pocket of the northern city of Raqqa on Sunday after some 275 militants and their family members surrendered.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said the operation will continue “until all the city is cleansed from terrorists who refused to surrender.”

The SDF has been on the offensive in Raqqa since early June and now controls about 90 percent of the city that was once the extremist group’s self-styled capital. Most of the fighters who remain in the pocket are foreigners, according to the SDF and opposition activists.

The operation was named after Adnan Abu Amjad, an Arab commander with the SDF who was killed in August while fighting against IS in central Raqqa.

The loss of Raqqa would hand another major blow to IS, which has lost most of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq. Iraqi forces captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul — the largest ever held by the extremist group — in July, and Syrian government forces retook the eastern Syrian city of Mayadeen, near the border with Iraq, on Saturday.

IS still holds parts of Syria’s Deir el-Zour province and Iraq’s Anbar province, as well as small, scattered pockets elsewhere.

On Saturday, the U.S.-led coalition and local officials said Syrian IS fighters and civilians would be allowed to leave Raqqa, but not foreign fighters. The evacuation appeared aimed at sparing the lives of civilians being used as human shields. As of last week, around 4,000 civilians were believed to still be in the city.

The SDF said the initiative by local tribesmen and members of the Raqqa Civil Council “succeed in evacuating civilians who were still in the city and the surrender of 275 local mercenaries and their families.” It added that the ongoing offensive aims to “end the presence of mercenaries of the terrorist organization inside the city.”

US-backed fighters begin final attack in Syria’s Raqqa

October 15, 2017

The Associated Press

OCTOBER 15, 2017 2:31 AM

© AFP/File | The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces say they have begun the battle to capture the last 10 percent of Raqa under jihadist control

‘Islamic State’ facing imminent collapse in Syria’s Raqqa

October 15, 2017

US-backed coalition forces claim they are about to drive the “Islamic State” completely out of Raqqa. Local officials and tribal leaders have reportedly struck a deal to allow IS fighters and civilians to evacuate.

SDF forces fight Islamic State in Raqqa in 2017

US-backed forces were on the brink of defeating the last remnants of the “Islamic State” (IS) group in the jihadists’ de-facto Syrian capital of Raqqa on Saturday, according to officials close to the operation to retake the city.

A spokesman for the US-led coalition, Colonel Ryan Dillon, said that around 100 IS militants had already surrendered and been “removed” from the city since Friday.

“We still expect difficult fighting in the days ahead and will not set a time for when we think Islamic State will be completely defeated in Raqqa,” he said.

But the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG told Reuters that coalition forces could have the city clear of IS forces within days.

Read more: Syrian Christians advance against IS in de-facto capital Raqqa

“The battles are continuing in Raqqa city. Daesh (IS) is on the verge of being finished. Today or tomorrow the city may be liberated,” YPG spokesman Nouri Mahmoud said.

Kurdish YPG in Syrian SDF alliance

The YPG is one of the most influential militant in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of groups that also includes Arabs and Christian units.

The SDF offensive to retake Raqqa started in June with the help of US-led airstrikes and several hundred US special forces.

Syrian IS fighters leaving Raqqa

Hundreds of people are trapped in IS-held pockets in the city, raising concerns over civilian casualties and IS using human shields.

Local officials from the Raqqa Civil Council and tribal leaders announced Saturday they had struck a deal to evacuate civilians and local fighters. The SDF will search and screen all people departing Raqqa.

The US-led coalition confirmed the deal in a statement.

“The arrangement is designed to minimize civilian casualties and purportedly excludes foreign terrorists,” the US-led coalition said in a statement, adding that it does not condone a deal that allows IS fighters “to escape Raqqa without facing justice, only to resurface somewhere else.”

 Civil Council/local Arab tribal elders work to minimize civilian casualties as SDF & @CJTFOIR prepare for major defeat in Raqqa

UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) monitoring group said that the issue of foreign fighters was of particular concern.

“The obstacle to their departure is that the mastermind of attacks in Paris in November 2015 is believed to be among them and he has refused to surrender,” SOHR head Rami Abdel-Rahman said. IS supporters killed 130 people in multiple terrorist attacks across Paris in November 2015.

Separately, the Syrian government and allied Shiite militia retook the town of Mayadeen from IS after intense fighting and Russian airstrikes, the Syrian military said Saturday.

Located along the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border, Mayadeen has been strategic IS stronghold as the group lost territory in Syria and Iraq.

Pro-Syrian regime forces have been trying to secure the Iraqi border and push IS out of a small pocket in the provincial capital Deir al-Zor

IS stronghold since 2014

IS had seized Raqqa as part of a broad offensive in Syria and Iraq in early 2014 and the city has since served as the jihadists’ primary Syrian stronghold.

But IS has lost much of its territory after US and Russian-backed forces began separate offensives against the militant group. In July, US-backed Iraqi forces retook Mosul, the jihadists’ de-facto capital in Iraq.

cw/amp/jm (Reuters, AP, dpa)

U.S. Commander: Final Assault on Islamic State Stronghold at Raqqa To Begin Sunday

October 8, 2017

The Jerusalem Post

By Reuters

OCTOBER 8, 2017 15:56

 

The Islamic State has been pushed out of Mosul and other major cities in the last several months, and Raqqa remains its last real stronghold.

A MEMBER of ISIS waves the group’s flag in Raqqa recently

A MEMBER of ISIS waves the group’s flag in Raqqa. (photo credit:REUTERS)

A final assault on Islamic State’s last line of defense in its former Syrian capital Raqqa should begin on Sunday night, a field commander for the US-backed forces operating there said.

The loss of Islamic State’s remaining streets and buildings in Raqqa following its defeat in Iraq’s Mosul this year and its retreat from swathes of territory in both countries, would mark a major milestone in the battle to destroy the jihadist group.

The assault on militants in the center of the northern city will focus on surrounding the sports stadium there, said a field commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in western Raqqa, who gave his name as Ardal Raqqa.

“Daesh is massing there because this is the last stage. They will resist, or they will surrender or die,” he said. “This their last stand to the death.”

Islamic State declared a caliphate in 2014 and at the height of its power ruled over millions of people, from northern Syria to the outskirts of Iraq’s capital Baghdad, but it has since endured a series of losses under attack from many sides.

Raqqa was the group’s de facto Syrian capital, a center of operations where it oversaw the management of much of eastern, central and northern Syria and planned attacks abroad.

Now it is hemmed into a small area in the city center that includes the stadium, the National Hospital and a roundabout where Islamic State once displayed the heads of its enemies.

In the hours before the expected launch of the final assault, which the commander said could take up to a week, the sound of gunfire sporadically rattled around the area near the hospital.

The district had been flattened, with buildings completely gone. Coalition jets soared overhead and air strikes pounded at a higher rate than in recent days.

Islamic State has lost most of its territory to the SDF, spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, and to a rival offensive by Syria’s army and allied forces this year, and has fallen back on the fertile Euphrates valley area downstream of Raqqa.

The army and its allies reached the city of Deir al-Zor in September after a months-long offensive across the Syrian desert, and have since then pushed down the Euphrates towards the border with Iraq.

On Sunday a Syrian military source said they had encircled Islamic State fighters in the city of al-Mayadin, one of the jihadists’ last strongholds in the area.

“Units of our armed forces with the allied forces continue their advance on a number of fronts and axes in Deir al-Zor and its countryside… and encircle Daesh terrorists in the city of al-Mayadin,” the military source said.

However, the group has still been able to launch a series of effective counter attacks against the Syrian army in the central desert region over the past week, putting pressure on the main supply road to Deir al-Zor from the west.

Syrian President Bashar Assad is backed in the war by Russia, Iran and Shi’ite militias including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and its campaign against Islamic State has mostly been on the west bank of the river.

The US-backed SDF campaign has mostly been on the east bank, where Raqqa is located, and has also advanced downstream to hold areas opposite Deir al-Zor. The United States and Russia have put in place channels to lessen the risk of fighting between the rival offensives they back.

US officials have previously said that Islamic State had relocated some of its diminished command and propaganda structures to al-Mayadin as it was forced from territory elsewhere.

The spokeswoman for the SDF campaign in Raqqa, Jihan Sheikh Ahmad, said in a statement on a website for the campaign that it would announce the liberation of Raqqa “in the coming few days” after having captured 85 percent of the city.

Commanders directing the battle in Raqqa have said that Islamic State fighters have taken civilian hostages and are using sniper fire, booby traps and tunnels to slow the SDF advance.

The SDF began its campaign to isolate Raqqa early this year, pushing along several fronts to enclose the city against the Euphrates backed by coalition air strikes and special forces.Its attack on the city itself started in June and the fighting left much of Raqqa in ruins, as intense air strikes and street-to-street battles devastated buildings.

US-led strikes killed 84 civilians near Syria’s Raqa: HRW

September 25, 2017

AFP

© AFP | Human Rights Watch says civilians were killed in a March air strike by the US-led coalition on a bakery in the Syrian town of Tabqa, shown here in September 2017

BEIRUT (AFP) – US-led coalition strikes near the Islamic State group’s Syrian stronghold Raqa in March killed at least 84 civilians, including dozens of children, Human Rights Watch alleged Monday.The group said the strikes hit two sites: a school housing displaced families in the town of Mansourah, and a market and bakery in the town of Tabqa.

It said witnesses acknowledged IS fighters had been present at both sites, but that large number of civilians were also there.

“These attacks killed dozens of civilians, including children, who had sought shelter in a school or were lining up to buy bread at a bakery,” HRW deputy emergencies director Ole Solvang said.

“If coalition forces did not know that there were civilians at these sites, they need to take a long, hard look at the intelligence they are using to verify its targets because it clearly was not good enough.”

HRW said the first of the two strikes was on March 20, and killed at least 40 people including 16 children at the Badia school in Mansourah. The second was on March 22 and killed at least 44 people including 14 children at the Tabqa market and bakery.

The US-led coalition has been carrying out air strikes in support of anti-IS operations in Syria since September 2014, after expanding its existing campaign in neighbouring Iraq.

Since last November, it has been supporting the Kurdish-Arab alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as it battles to capture Raqa province, including its capital Raqa city.

The SDF broke into Raqa city in June and is on the verge of capturing the former jihadist bastion.

But activists have criticised what they say are disproportionately high civilian death tolls in the campaign.

The coalition says it take all possible precautions to avoid civilian casualties and investigates credible reports of civilian deaths in its strikes.

In August, it acknowledged the deaths of 624 civilians in its strikes in Syria and Iraq since 2014.

But rights groups say the real figure is much higher, and HRW criticised the coalition’s methodology for assessing civilian casualties.

It said the coalition reported having assessed the Mansourah and Tabqa strikes, but it appeared they carried out no site visits nor witness interviews even though both places have been under SDF control for weeks.

“If the coalition had visited the sites and talked to witnesses they would have found plenty of evidence that civilians were killed in these attacks,” Solvang said.

“The coalition should follow our lead, conduct full investigations, and find ways to make its civilian casualty assessments more accurate.”

More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began with anti-government protests in March 2011.