US-backed forces push closer to Is­lamic State ‘cap­i­tal’ Raqa Raqa and Mo­sul - the last ma­jor cities un­der IS con­trol

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

A US-backed Kur­dish-Arab al­liance pushed closer to Raqa and Iraqi forces seized a key town near Mo­sul as of­fen­sives ad­vanced yes­ter­day against the two Is­lamic State group strongholds. Af­ter an­nounc­ing the start of the long-awaited of­fen­sive on Raqa on Sun­day, the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces (SDF) al­liance said it had moved south to­wards the city de­spite fierce ji­hadist re­sis­tance. South of Mo­sul, Iraqi forces had re­taken the town of Ha­mam Al-Alil from IS, a key ob­jec­tive in their three-week ad­vance on the city. Raqa and Mo­sul are the last ma­jor cities in Syria and Iraq un­der the ji­hadists’ con­trol and their cap­ture would deal a knock­out blow to the self-styled “caliphate” IS de­clared in mid-2014.

The US-led coali­tion that launched op­er­a­tions against IS two years ago is pro­vid­ing cru­cial back­ing to the of­fen­sives, with both air strikes and spe­cial forces ad­vis­ers on the ground. SDF spokes­woman Ji­han Sheikh Ahmed said that forces had ad­vanced on two fronts to­wards Raqa amid heavy fight­ing. Al­liance forces had pushed at least 10 kilo­me­ters south to­wards the city from the towns of Ain Issa and Su­luk, she said. In both cases SDF fight­ers were still some dis­tance from Raqa-on the Ain Issa front at least 30 kilo­me­ters away. “The of­fen­sive is go­ing ac­cord­ing to plan,” said Ahmed, who added that at least 10 vil­lages had so far been taken from IS. “The bat­tle will be long.”

‘Fight will not be easy’

An SDF com­man­der said IS was fight­ing back with its fa­vorite tac­tic of send­ing sui­cide bombers in ex­plo­sives­packed ve­hi­cles against ad­vanc­ing forces. “IS is send­ing car bombers but coali­tion planes and our anti-tank weapons are lim­it­ing their ef­fec­tive­ness,” the com­man­der said, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity. The SDF says some 30,000 of its fight­ers are tak­ing part in the op­er­a­tion, dubbed “Wrath of the Euphrates”. It aims to sur­round and iso­late IS in­side Raqa be­fore even­tu­ally as­sault­ing the city it­self. Both SDF com­man­ders and coali­tion of­fi­cials have warned that the bat­tle is likely to be long and dif­fi­cult. “As in Mo­sul, the fight will not be easy and there is hard work ahead,” US De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter said in a state­ment af­ter the as­sault was launched.

“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. Driv­ing IS from both cities has been the endgame since the US-led coali­tion launched air strikes against it in sum­mer 2014, shortly af­ter the ji­hadists seized con­trol of large parts of Syria and Iraq. Some 50 US mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers are in­volved in the Raqa op­er­a­tion, par­tic­u­larly to guide air strikes, ac­cord­ing to an SDF source. Near Ain Issa, an AFP cor­re­spon­dent saw at least one sol­dier who had US mark­ings on his hel­met with SDF fight­ers.

Bat­tles rage near Mo­sul

Near Mo­sul, fed­eral po­lice, army and elite in­te­rior min­istry forces estab­lished full con­trol over Ha­mam Al-Alil, the last town of note on the way to Mo­sul from the south, AFP re­porters said. It lies on the west bank of the Ti­gris river, about 15 kilo­me­ters south­east of the edge of Mo­sul. Fight­ing also con­tin­ued east of Mo­sul, with Kur­dish forces launch­ing an of­fen­sive to take the town of Bashiqa and the elite Counter Ter­ror­ism Ser­vice bat­tling IS in the city’s sub­urbs. “Up to seven neigh­bor­hoods are un­der the con­trol of counter-ter­ror­ism forces, and they are now com­pletely se­cur­ing them and clear­ing them of pock­ets of ter­ror­ists present in­side the houses,” CTS spokesman Sabah Al-No­man said.

The Mo­sul of­fen­sive has ad­vanced faster than ex­pected but the bat­tle for Raqa is far more com­pli­cated. Un­like in Iraq where the coali­tion has a state-con­trolled ally in fed­eral forces, in Syria its ground part­ner is made up of lo­cal mili­tias, in­clud­ing some rebel groups that have bat­tled Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad’s regime. The dom­i­na­tion of the SDF by the Kur­dish Peo­ple’s Pro­tec­tion Units (YPG) has also raised deep con­cern with Turkey, which con­sid­ers the YPG a “ter­ror­ist” group linked to the out­lawed Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party (PKK).

Turkey in Au­gust be­gan its own op­er­a­tion in­side north­ern Syria, tar­get­ing both IS and the YPG and sup­port­ing lo­cal rebel forces. Aid groups have voiced con­cerns for civil­ians trapped in both Mo­sul and Raqa, warn­ing they may be used as hu­man shields. More than 34,000 peo­ple have been dis­placed since the Mo­sul op­er­a­tion be­gan on Oc­to­ber 17, the In­ter­na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Mi­gra­tion said yes­ter­day. More than a mil­lion peo­ple are be­lieved to be in Mo­sul. Raqa had a pop­u­la­tion of some 240,000 be­fore 2011 but more than 80,000 peo­ple have since fled there from other parts of Syria.

— AFP

AIN ISSA, Syria: Mem­bers of US-backed Kur­dish-Arab forces de­ploy on the front­line, one kilome­ter from the Syr­ian town of Ain Issa as they launched an of­fen­sive on the Is­lamic State group’s de facto Syr­ian cap­i­tal.

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