IS seizes more ground near Syria’s Palmyra

Tur­key-backed rebels launch fresh as­sault on Al-Bab

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

BEIRUT:

Is­lamic State seized more ter­ri­tory from Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces near the an­cient city of Palmyra yes­ter­day in fierce clashes that raged for a sec­ond day, the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights mon­i­tor­ing group said.

The ji­hadists launched an at­tack late on Thurs­day in which they cap­tured grain si­los north­east of Palmyra and have since taken at least par­tial con­trol of oil and gas fields to its north­west. Dozens of Syr­ian troops have been killed in the fight­ing, the Bri­tish-based Ob­ser­va­tory, which tracks the war us­ing sources on the ground, said.

Syr­ian war­planes were car­ry­ing out air raids in the area in an effort to take back po­si­tions lost. The fight­ing was some of the fiercest in the area since the Syr­ian army re­cap­tured Palmyra af­ter nearly two years in March, driv­ing out the ul­tra-hard­line mil­i­tants who had de­stroyed large parts of the city’s UNESCO World Her­itage ru­ins. Is­lamic State has been on the back foot in both Syria and Iraq since late last year, los­ing much of its ter­ri­tory in both coun­tries as well as some of its most se­nior figures, killed in air strikes.

The group took ad­van­tage of chaos dur­ing Syria’s civil war to seize ter­ri­tory there and in Iraq in the sum­mer of 2014. Syria’s civil war pits Pres­i­dent Bashar AlAs­sad, backed by Iran, Rus­sia and mili­tias against mostly rebels.

Turk­ish push

Turk­ish-backed rebels launched an as­sault on the Is­lamic State-held city of al-Bab in north­ern Syria yes­ter­day, op­po­si­tion fight­ers said, and Turk­ish war­planes hit dozens of ji­hadist tar­gets in sup­port of the of­fen­sive. Hundreds of Arab and Turk­men fight­ers in­volved in the as­sault took con­trol of at least two vil­lages west of al-Bab, the fight­ers said. Turk­ish state me­dia said late on Thurs­day that Ankara had sent 300 Turk­ish com­man­dos to north­ern Syria as a re­in­force­ment.

The oper­a­tions are the lat­est in Tur­key’s “Op­er­a­tion Euphrates Shield”, a military in­cur­sion launched three and a half months ago in sup­port of the rebels, and meant to push both Is­lamic State mil­i­tants and Kur­dish fight­ers back from the bor­der.

The Turk­ish army said its air strikes on Fri­day morn­ing de­stroyed 34 Is­lamic State tar­gets, in­clud­ing mil­i­tant bases, shel­ters, ve­hi­cles mounted with guns, and am­mu­ni­tion de­pots. Ten tar­gets had also been hit the day be­fore. The military also said the rebels it backs had seized con­trol of an im­por­tant high­way be­tween the towns of Al-Bab and Man­bij, around 50 km (30 miles) to the east. “There is a ma­jor as­sault un­der way,” a fighter with the Turk­men Sul­tan Mu­rad bri­gade speak­ing from in­side Syria said. “God will­ing we will break (IS) re­sis­tance this time. Very powerful troops were sent last night.”

The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, which mon­i­tors the con­flict through a net­work of sources in the coun­try, con­firmed there was an in­crease in the num­ber of Turk­ish troops with the Euphrates Shield forces and that they were shelling heav­ily on Fri­day as they at­tempted to ad­vance on AlBab. The Ob­ser­va­tory said ex­plo­sions trig­gered by Is­lamic State had caused ca­su­al­ties in a vil­lage close to Al-Bab. It also said it had re­ceived in­for­ma­tion that 12 civil­ians were killed and 10 wounded as a re­sult of air strikes and bom­bard­ment by Turk­ish forces tar­get­ing Al-Bab. The ad­vance of the Turk­ish­backed forces po­ten­tially pits them against both Kur­dish fight­ers and Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces in an in­creas­ingly messy bat­tle­field.

Al-Bab is of par­tic­u­lar strate­gic im­por­tance to Tur­key, partly be­cause Kur­dish-dom­i­nated mili­tias have also been pur­su­ing a cam­paign to seize it. Ankara is de­ter­mined to pre­vent the Kur­dish YPG mili­tia, which it sees as a hos­tile force, from join­ing up can­tons it con­trols along the Turk­ish bor­der, for fear that would stoke Kur­dish sep­a­ratism at home.

The Syr­ian army mean­while, has re­leased drone footage show­ing the wide­spread de­struc­tion in Old Aleppo, which it took con­trol of from rebels this week. Bombed-out build­ings and de­stroyed roads, the re­sult of ground fight­ing and air strikes, could be seen in the footage re­leased on Thurs­day as the army pressed ahead with an of­fen­sive to re­take all of Aleppo, once Syria’s most pop­u­lous city.

Reuters jour­nal­ists heard the sound of nine air raids in about half an hour in Old Aleppo, in the cen­tre of the city, yes­ter­day. In­tense clashes also oc­curred in Sheikh Saeed in the south of the east­ern sec­tor. Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad has said that re­claim­ing Aleppo would swing the course of the nearly six-year civil war in his favour. — Agen­cies

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