IS seizes more ground near Syria’s Palmyra
Turkey-backed rebels launch fresh assault on Al-Bab
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-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