Posts Tagged ‘U.S.-led coalition’

Syrian Forces and U.S.-Backed Fighters Rush into Oil-Rich Eastern Province — Who will dominate post-war Syria? Russia, Iran and the U.S. all have a stake

September 9, 2017

By BASSEM MROUE

The Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed Syrian fighters are preparing an offensive against the Islamic State group in eastern Syria along the border with Iraq in a race with government forces marching in the same direction against the extremists in their last major holdout in Syria.

The dueling battles for Deir el-Zour highlight the importance of the oil-rich eastern province, which has become the latest epicenter of the international war against the Islamic State group, raising concerns of an eventual clash between the two sides.

The race to reach the Iraqi border will also shape future regional dynamics, determining whether the United States or Russia and Iran will have more influence in the strategic area once the extremist group is defeated.

Iran has been one of President Bashar Assad’s strongest backers since the crisis began in March 2011 and has sent thousands of Iranian-backed fighters and advisers to fight against insurgent groups trying to remove him from power. The U.S. enjoys wide influence in northeastern Syria where hundreds of American troops and advisers are helping the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, one of the most effective in fighting IS in Syria.

The U.S.-backed fighters are up against a huge challenge to reach Deir el-Zour, especially while they are still fighting to liberate Raqqa from IS. Three months into the battle, they have liberated around 60 percent of the city, and much more difficult urban fighting still lies ahead.

This week, Syrian troops and their Iranian-backed allies reached Deir el-Zour, breaking a nearly three-year-old IS siege on government-held parts of the city in a major breakthrough in their offensive against IS. In a victory statement, the Syrian military said Deir el-Zour will be used as a launching pad to liberate the remaining IS-held areas along the border with Iraq.

The troops’ arrival to Deir el-Zour city brings Syrian forces and their allies a step closer to controlling the oil-rich eastern province and its capital bordering Iraq, a major boost for Tehran’s growing influence in the area. The region has some of Syria’s largest oil fields, whose revenue is vital to the state’s dried coffers.

Washington has been determined to block the formation of an “Iranian corridor” — of Shiite-controlled land stretching from Tehran to Damascus — and for months has been eyeing the area southeast of Raqqa near the Iraqi border.

U.S.-backed Syrian rebels had been gathering in Tanf in southeastern Syria to march toward Deir el-Zour, but their plans were disrupted in June when Syrian troops reached the border with Iraq, obstructing their path. The only way left for the SDF to enter the eastern province appears to be from the northeastern province of Hassakeh, where Syrian activists say the U.S.-backed fighters have been gathering and stepping up preparations for an attack.

A U.S.-trained group, the Deir el-Zour Military Council, which is part of the SDF, is expected to launch the attack against IS in Deir el-Zour under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition within days. SDF officials say the imminent attack is not related to government forces reaching the city earlier this week, and was planned months in advance.

Syrian Kurdish official Nawaf Khalil, who is in Germany but frequently visits northern Syria, said the SDF attack on Deir el-Zour could begin at any moment, adding that the battle for Raqqa now no longer needs a large number of fighters.

“Deir el-Zour is a main connection point and a very important geographic area,” Khalil said referring to the province linking several Syrian regions with western Iraq.

The U.S.-led coalition fighting IS said in an email to The Associated Press that the SDF “will decide when the conditions are right for an offensive.”

Asked about concerns of a possible clash between the SDF and Syrian troops, the coalition said: “We urge all forces to concentrate their efforts on our common enemy (IS).”

Washington has welcomed Syrian troops’ fight against IS. Both the U.S. and Russia have an interest in avoiding a clash between the SDF and Syrian forces and may devise a strategy that will allow both sides to share control of the vast province.

U.S. officials have suggested they are not seeking a confrontation with Assad’s forces.

“We are in the killing-ISIS business. That is what we want to do, and if the Syrian regime wants to do that … and show that they are doing just that in Abu Kamal or Deir el-Zour or elsewhere, that means that we don’t have to do that in those places,” said coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon in June referring to a town on the Iraqi border, and using a different acronym for IS.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last month during a visit to the Middle East that the Middle Euphrates River Valley will soon be liberated, as IS takes hits from both sides of the valley that bisects Iraq and Syria.

“You see, ISIS is now caught in between converging forces,” Mattis said.

Ahmed Abu Khawla, the commander of the Deir el-Zour Military Council, says he commands a force of 4,000 fighters, mostly from Deir el-Zour province.

“We are an organized army. We are not militias or separate brigades. We have a unified military leadership and an operations room to coordinate,” he told the AP.

“The plans for the Deir el-Zour campaign have been in the works for over a year and half but Raqqa took precedence because of international considerations,” said Abu Khawla.

Abu Khawla said his group has already liberated 93 villages in northwestern rural Deir el-Zour including, more recently, the village of Abou Khashab. Asked about potential confrontations with government troops, he said: “If the regime wants a confrontation or directs one bullet at us we will respond.”

He also said that the SDF is already forming a local civilian council to administer the area after the military operations.

Ahmad al-Ahmad, who heads the opposition’s Syria Press center, said the SDF does not have the manpower to control Deir el-Zour, adding that government forces have brought in lots of troops and Iranian-backed gunmen for the battle.

“The regime wants to reach the border with Iraq to open a land line to Iran through Baghdad,” al-Ahmad said, adding that they are capable of doing that.

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Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.

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U.N. Calls for Humanitarian Pause, Sparing Civilians in Syria’s Raqqa

August 24, 2017

GENEVA — The United Nations called on Thursday for a humanitarian pause to allow an estimated 20,000 trapped civilians to escape the Syrian city of Raqqa, and urged the U.S.-led coalition to rein in air strikes that have caused casualties.

“Boats on the Euphrates must not be attacked, people who come out cannot risk air raids when they come out,” Jan Egeland, humanitarian adviser on Syria, told reporters in Geneva.

“So now is the time to think of possibilities, pauses or otherwise that might facilitate the escape of civilians, knowing that Islamic State fighters are doing their absolute best to keep them in place,” he said.

The United Nations is still assessing the outcome of talks held this week in Riyadh between the three Syrian opposition groups – who failed to unite – Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, the U.N. deputy special envoy for Syria, said.

Asked whether Syria peace talks would be held in Geneva in September, he said: “Based on our assessment of what happened in Riyadh we will decide how to move ahead in the future.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alison Williams)

IS Claims Karbala Attack on Iraqi Troops

August 13, 2017

BAGHDAD — A statement from the Islamic State group claims responsibility for an attack on Iraqi troops outside Karbala that left one dead.

Iraqi Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, spokesman for the Joint Military Command, says the suicide car bomb attack at a checkpoint outside the southern Iraqi city late Saturday injured two others.

The IS statement said the attack targeted a cement factory outside Karbala and resulted in dozens of casualties.

Iraq’s prime minister declared victory over the Islamic State group in Iraq’s second largest city Mosul in July, depriving the group of their last significant urban foothold in the country.

Iraqi forces closely backed by the U.S.-led coalition are now preparing to retake the IS-held town of Tal Afar west of Mosul.

US-Led Coalition: Amnesty Report on Mosul ‘Irresponsible’

July 12, 2017

IRBIL, Iraq — The U.S.-led coalition says an Amnesty International report accusing its forces of violating international law during the fight against the Islamic State group in Mosul is “irresponsible.”

Col. Joe Scrocca, a coalition spokesman, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that “war is not pleasant, and pretending that it should be is foolish and places the lives of civilians and soldiers alike at risk.”

Amnesty International released a report Tuesday saying coalition forces may have committed war crimes during their grueling nine-month battle against IS in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared “total victory” in Mosul on Monday.

Amnesty also documented war crimes committed by IS, including mass killings, forced displacement and the use of civilians as human shields.

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Iraqi forces capture crossing on Syria border from Islamic State

June 17, 2017

Reuters

The Iraqi army and Sunni tribal fighters have dislodged Islamic State from the al-Waleed border crossing into Syria, an Iraqi military statement said on Saturday.

Aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition and the Iraqi air force took part in the operation, the statement said.

Al-Waleed is close to Tanf, a strategic Syrian highway border crossing with Iraq, where U.S. forces have assisted rebels trying to recapture territory from fleeing Islamic State fighters. U.S. forces have been based since last year at Tanf.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

The border in the vicinity of Al-Waleed and Tanf is clearly designated

New Bridge Reunites Mosul as Iraqi Forces Gear Up for Final Assault

May 23, 2017

BAGHDAD — Iraqi military engineers installed a new floating bridge across the Tigris river on Wednesday, reconnecting the two halves of Mosul to facilitate troop deployments ahead of a final assault to dislodge Islamic State.

All five bridges connecting the two sides of the city bisected by the Tigris were struck by the U.S.-led coalition in order to hinder the militants’ movements in the early stages of the campaign to retake Mosul last year.

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Iraq — US troops train Iraqi forces in key bridging skills

Seven months on, Iraqi forces have removed Islamic State from all but a pocket of territory in the western half of Mosul, including the Old City, where the militants are expected to make their last stand.

It is set to be the most complex battleground yet.

“This floating bridge is very important for deploying reinforcements to the west side rapidly to build up adequate forces to sweep the Old City soon,” Colonel Haitham al-Taie told Reuters.

Taie said the bridge in the Hawi al-Kaneesa area would also spare fleeing civilians from making a long journey to the nearest crossing point, about 30 km (20 miles) south of Mosul.

The United Nations said last week up to 200,000 more people may flee as Iraqi forces push to retake the rest of the city.

The militants are effectively holding hundreds of thousands of civilians hostage as human shields to slow their advance.

(Reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

"There are currently about 90 (Iraqi soldiers) that are already trained and proficient, and with the addition of these 25, (there will) be over 100 ready to go complete bridge missions," said a US soldier

“There are currently about 90 (Iraqi soldiers) that are already trained and proficient, and with the addition of these 25, (there will) be over 100 ready to go complete bridge missions,” said a US soldier (This was as of March 2017 — there are more now)

U.S.-led coalition airlifts forces in Raqqa, Syria to cut off Islamic State fighters — Ground forces inserted behind enemy lines

March 23, 2017

Reuters

By Ellen Francis and Tom Perry | BEIRUT

The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State has for the first time airdropped local ground forces behind enemy lines near the ISIS-held town of Tabqa in northern Syria, the Pentagon said on Wednesday, opening a new front in the campaign to recapture nearby Raqqa city.

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Apache helicopters (File photo)

The U.S. military had airlifted allied Syrian Arab militia fighters near Tabqa, providing them fire support in a move aimed at retaking a major dam that remains in the hands of Islamic State, also known as ISIS, the Pentagon said at a news conference in Washington.

U.S. troops took part in the operation, at least flying to the site. Colonel Joseph Scrocca, a coalition spokesman, declined to say whether U.S. advisers were on the ground, but left open that possibility.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a militia alliance including Arab and Kurdish fighters, said the operation also aimed to block any advance by Syrian government forces from the west.

Islamic State captured the Tabqa Dam, also known as the Euphrates Dam, and a nearby major air base at the height of its expansion in Syria and Iraq in 2014. It is located about 40 km (25 miles) to the west of Raqqa city.

The campaign to capture Raqqa appears to be gathering pace as an overlapping, U.S.-backed effort in Iraq is drawing closer to driving Islamic State from Mosul.

A local official familiar with SDF operations said the airdrop took place on Tuesday.

The SDF, which includes the powerful Kurdish YPG militia, is fighting to encircle Raqqa city with support from the coalition, including air support and backing on the ground from U.S. special forces.

Scrocca said Apache helicopters, Marine artillery, U.S. special operations forces and air strikes were involved in the operation. About 75 to 80 percent of the forces were members of the Syria Arab Coalition, and Kurds were among the remainder, he added.

The operation could take several weeks, Scrocca said. “This is the first time that we have conducted an air movement or an air assault with the Syrian Arab Coalition and the SDF, (I) don’t know if it’ll be the last.”

The landing forces had seized four small villages in the area west of Tabqa and cut a main highway that links the provinces of Raqqa, Deir al-Zor and Aleppo, it said.

PIONEERING STEP

The local official familiar with SDF operations told Reuters the airdrop operation aimed to secure a crossing point for forces coming in boats across the Euphrates, which began arriving at dawn on Wednesday.

The official said the air drop was “a pioneering step.”

The head of the YPG told Reuters last week a final assault to capture Raqqa city from IS would begin at the start of April. The Pentagon said a decision had yet to be taken.

Turkey is pressing Washington for a role in the Raqqa campaign. Ankara is concerned about the growing influence of the YPG, seeing it as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade insurgency in Turkey.

The SDF cut the last main road out of Raqqa earlier this month, narrowing in on the city from the north, east and west.

The only way in or out of Raqqa now is over the Euphrates River that borders the city to the south.

Air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition near Raqqa have escalated this month, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The Britain-based war monitoring group said an air strike killed at 33 people near Raqqa when it hit a school sheltering displaced people on Monday.

The Observatory said it believed the strike was carried out by the U.S.-led coalition.

Coalition air strikes pounded Tabqa on Wednesday, destroying a bakery and other buildings, the Observatory added. The strikes killed and wounded more than 40 civilians, it said.

Scrocca said the United States had carried out strikes in the area but did not confirm a U.S. strike on the building in question, adding the U.S. military would look into the allegations.

The jihadist group is losing ground to three separate campaigns in northern Syria, by the SDF, the Russian-backed Syrian army and Turkish-backed Syrian rebels.

(Additional reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Richard Chang)

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Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance forces encouraged by President Trump’s support — Planing a new phase in Syria against Islamic State — “There are signs of full support from the new American leadership”

January 31, 2017
By Tom Perry | BEIRUT

A U.S.-backed alliance of Syrian militias said on Tuesday it saw signs of increased U.S. support for their campaign against Islamic State with President Donald Trump in office, a shift that would heighten Turkish worries over Kurdish power in Syria.

A Kurdish military source told Reuters separately the next phase of a campaign by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance — which includes the Kurdish YPG militia — aimed to cut the last remaining routes to Islamic State’s stronghold of Raqqa city, including the road to Deir al-Zor.

The YPG has been the main partner on the ground in Syria for the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, fighting as part of the SDF that has driven Islamic State from swathes of northern Syria with the coalition’s air support.

The YPG also has links to a Kurdish party, the PKK, designated by Turkey as a terrorist group.

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It forms the military backbone of autonomous regions that have been set up by Kurdish groups and their allies in northern Syria since the onset of the war in 2011, alarming Turkey where a Kurdish minority lives just over the border. The main Syrian Kurdish groups say their aim is autonomy, not independence.

SDF spokesman Talal Silo told Reuters the U.S.-led coalition supplied the SDF with armored vehicles for the first time four or five days ago. Although the number was small, Silo called it a significant shift in support. He declined to give an exact number.

“Previously we didn’t get support in this form, we would get light weapons and ammunition,” he said. “There are signs of full support from the new American leadership — more than before — for our forces.”

He said the vehicles would be deployed in the campaign against Islamic State which has since November focused on Raqqa city, Islamic State’s base of operations in central Syria.

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Raqqa was the scene of many Islamic State acts of barbarism

The first two phases of the offensive focused on capturing areas to the north and west of Raqqa, part of a strategy to encircle the city.

The third phase would focus on capturing remaining areas, including the road between Raqqa city and Deir al-Zor, the Kurdish military source said.

IS holds nearly all of Deir al-Zor province, where it has been fighting hard in recent weeks to try to capture the last remaining pockets of Syrian government-held territory in Deir al-Zor city.

Cutting off Raqqa city from IS strongholds in Deir al-Zor would be a major blow against the group.

“The coming phase of the campaign aims to isolate Raqqa completely,” said the Kurdish military source, who declined to be named. “Accomplishing this requires reaching the Raqqa-Deir al-Zor road,” the source said.

“This mission will be difficult.”

Silo of the SDF said preparations were underway for “new action” against IS starting in “a few days”, but declined to give further details.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Sonya Hepinstall)

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In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian citizens and firefighters gather at the scene where one of rockets hit the Dubeet hospital in the central neighborhood of Muhafaza in Aleppo, Syria, May 3. Shells and mortar rounds are raining down on every neighborhood Aleppo,” said Aleppo-based health official Mohammad Hazouri, speaking from Al-Razi hospital.(SANA via AP/-)

Syria: U.S. Support To Allies Improves Immediately Under President Trump — “We can see evidence that there are signs of new support.”

January 31, 2017

U.S.-backed Syrian alliance says gets more U.S. support since Trump took office

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Looking down a typical street in the ruined city of Aleppo.  REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Reuters

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State has supplied its Syrian allies with armored vehicles for the first time, expanding support since U.S. President Donald Trump came to office, a spokesman for the Syrian groups told Reuters on Tuesday.

The armored vehicles and troop carriers had arrived four or five days ago, said Talal Silo, spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance, which includes the Kurdish YPG militia.

Though the number was small, he said, “this is evidence that there are signs of new support”. “Previously we didn’t get support in this form, we would get light weapons and ammunition,” he said.

“There are signs of full support from the new American leadership – more than before – for our forces,” he said.

(Reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Iraqi general’s tour suggests tough fight ahead in west Mosul

January 22, 2017

Reuters

A member of Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) stands on a building during a battle with Islamic State militants in east of Mosul, Iraq, January 21, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
By Michael Georgy | MOSUL

Residents of east Mosul held up their children and took selfies with Iraqi counter-terrorism commander Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi after his men cleared Islamic State fighters from their neighbourhoods.

But his tour on Saturday of homes once occupied by the militants was a reminder of the dangers ahead as security forces prepare to expand their offensive against the Sunni militants into west Mosul.

Flanked by bodyguards in the Mohandiseen neighbourhood, Saadi got a firsthand view of Islamic State’s meticulous planning and reign of terror as he moved from house to house, greeted by locals as a hero.

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 Iraq — Lt. General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, center, inspects his forces ahead of an operation. (AP Photo)

In one home were a set of instructions on how to make bombs. A large bucket was filled with screws that were packed into explosives to kill and maim. Beside the leaflets were a pair of industrial rubber gloves, wires and detonators.

Nearby a thick book described how to use Russian machine guns. Militants were also well-versed on how to employ anti-tank missiles.

The battle for Mosul, involving 100,000 Iraqi troops, members of the Kurdish security forces and Shi’ite militiamen, is the biggest ground operation in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

Iraqi security forces have retaken most of east Mosul, with the help of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes which flattened rows of buildings in Iraq’s second-largest city.

The next phase, expected to kick off in a few days, could prove more difficult.

Western Mosul has many narrow streets and alleyways that tanks and other large armoured vehicles cannot pass through.

Jihadists are expected to put up a much tougher fight to hold on to their last stronghold in Iraq.

“We expect to enter the west in the next few days,” said Saadi, shortly after tearing down an Islamic State poster in anger.

Mosul, the largest city held by Islamic State across its once vast, self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and neighbouring Syria, has been occupied by the group since its fighters drove the U.S.-trained army out in June 2014.

Its fall would mark the end of the caliphate but the militants are widely expected to mount an insurgency in Iraq and inspire attacks in the West.

DRONES, TORTURE CHAMBER

The group’s determination and organisation were evident in several homes toured by Saadi.

Laminated guides on the range of various weapons could be found on the floor or on tables.

One house was clearly dedicated to the production of small drone aircraft used for both surveillance and attacks. Several lay scattered on the floor.

A document with Islamic State logos asked detailed questions about the type of drone mission, either bombing, an explosive aircraft, spying or training.

There was section on who will manage the aircraft’s power on any particular mission and a checklist on structural integrity.

Islamic State ruled eastern Mosul with zero tolerance for dissent, routinely shooting or beheading anyone branded an opponent to their radical ideology.

Saadi’s men were tipped off Islamic State had converted a villa on the street he was standing on into a prison and torture chamber. People were held on the top floor in rooms with steel bars.

“We were told that the neighbours would hear screaming from the house,” said Saadi. “They imprisoned anyone that challenged them. Anyone who refused to fight for them.”

Across town, overlooking the Tigris River dividing east and west, the former Ninewah Oberoi Hotel offered another glimpse into Islamic State, which changed its name to Hotel of the Inheritors.

“It was a place for them for the gatherings of the foreigners (fighters) and suicide bombers,” said

Saadi, standing on the hotel’s rooftop. “Five stars … in order to encourage them.”

Gunshots rang out, and explosions could be heard, a precursor to the upcoming campaign in west Mosul.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)