ASSAULT LAUNCHED ON IS ‘CAPITAL’
REGIME SHELLING KILLS 6 KINDERGARTEN KIDS
AIN ISSA, Syria: US-backed Kurdish-Arab forces launched an offensive yesterday on the Islamic State group’s de facto Syrian capital Raqqa, upping pressure on the militants who are already battling Iraqi troops in Mosul. The start of the assault by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) came as Iraqi forces fought inside Mosul for the third day running amid fierce jihadist resistance. The two cities are the last major urban centers under IS control after the suffered a string of territorial losses in Iraq and Syria over the past year.
The US-led coalition battling IS is backing both assaults, hoping to deal a knockout blow to the selfstyled “caliphate” the group declared in mid-2014. SDF commanders announced the start of the operation against Raqqa in Ain Issa, some 50 km north of the city.
“The major battle to liberate Raqqa and its surroundings has begun,” SDF spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed said. Operation “Wrath of the Euphrates” involves some 30,000 fighters and began on Saturday night, Ahmed said.
SDF forces are advancing on three fronts, from Ain Issa and Tal Abyad to the north of Raqqa, and from the village of Makman to the east. SDF spokesman Talal Sello told AFP the operation would proceed in two phases, first seizing areas around Raqqa and isolating it, then taking the city itself. “The fight will not be easy, and will require accurate and careful operations because IS will defend its bastion knowing that the loss of Raqqa will mean it is finished in Syria,” Sello said.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in Washington echoed that sentiment. “As in Mosul, the fight will not be easy and there is hard work ahead, but it is necessary to end the fiction of ISIL’s caliphate and disrupt the group’s ability to carry out terror attacks against the United States, our allies and our partners,” Carter said, using an alternative name for IS. An AFP correspondent in Ain Issa yesterday saw dozens of SDF fighters heading on vehicles towards the frontline.
Ahmed told AFP in Beirut later that 10 villages and several hamlets had been retaken. IS said it carried out a suicide car bombing in the Suluk area that killed 14 SDF fighters. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported wounded in the attack but no word of fatalities. Driving the militants from Mosul and Raqqa has been the endgame since the US-led coalition launched air strikes against IS in the summer of 2014. The coalition has also provided training and deployed hundreds of advisers to work with Iraqi forces and select Syrian fighters, including the SDF.
Sello said the alliance had received new weapons from the coalition for the Raqqa battle, including anti-tank missiles. Another SDF source said 50 US military advisers would be involved in the operation, particularly to guide air strikes. Dominated by the powerful Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the SDF has in recent months flushed IS out of swathes of territory in northern Syria, including the flashpoint town of Manbij in August. Washington has promoted the SDF as a key ally in the fight against IS, but the partnership is complicated by Turkey’s fierce opposition to the YPG.
Meanwhile, at least six children were killed yesterday in Syrian government shelling that hit a kindergarten in the rebel-held town of Harasta outside the capital Damascus, the Syrian Observatory said. It said 17 people, most of them children, were also injured in the shelling. An AFP photographer saw the body of one child, a girl, lying on a bed at a makeshift hospital, her face bloodied and her clothes torn. At the kindergarten, smears of blood were left on the tiled floor, underneath a small red slide propped against a wall painted with children’s drawings. Harasta is in the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta, outside Damascus, a region that is regularly targeted by government air strikes and shelling.
HARASTA, Syria: The body of a Syrian girl lies on a bed at a makeshift hospital following shelling on a kindergarten in this rebel-held area on the outskirts of the capital Damascus yesterday.