Syrian fighters move even closer to ISIL’s ‘capital’
BEIRUT // Syrian Kurdish-led forces on Saturday closed in on Raqqa, ISIL’s self-declared capital, seizing a cotton mill only four kilometres north of the city and clashing with the militants on a number of fronts.
And in Aleppo province, it was announced on pro-government media that the Syrian army, aided by heavy aerial bombing by the Russian and Syrian air forces, has taken full control of a small airbase held by ISIL in the east of the province.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces advanced on Raqqa in a multi-pronged offensive, with backing from the US-led coalition, bringing them within four kilometres of the city to the north-east and within about six kilometres to the north. The UK-based war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it also had reports of fighting 13km north-west of Raqqa.
The Raqqa Campaign, a Facebook page affiliated with the Kurdish-led forces, said the fighters seized the cotton mill, 4 kilometres north of the city on Saturday. Kurdish Hawar news agency said the SDFalso seized a local ruling party headquarters and a prison used by the militants. After capturing the strategically important town of Tabqa and its neighbouring dam, the SDFexpect to advance on Raqqa this summer.
“The city is near, very near,” said Nasser Haj Mansour, an adviser for the SDF.
Kurdish activist Mustafa Bali said the SDF were moving fast to reach the outskirts of Raqqa city, but that the battle for the city was likely to take time, although the SDF had covered 8km in one push, with good air cover.
The activist-run Raqqa Being Slaughtered Silently group said public markets in Raqqa had been closed, suspecting it was because of the proximity of the clashes. Later, the group said the militants ordered merchants to evacuate the vegetable market for the next few days.
The campaign to recapture Raqqa, which has been in ISIL’s control since 2013, appears to be accelerating following a decision by the Trump administration to arm the Kurdish-led forces with heavy weapons. The weapons have not yet been delivered.
Activists on Saturday also reported that Syrian government forces had regained control of Al Jarrah airbase from the ISIL extremists who seized it in 2014. The airport is located in the hardline militants’ remaining enclave in the eastern Aleppo countryside, a region where they have mostly lost control to competing forces ranging from the Syrian army, US-backed Kurdish-led forces to Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels.
The airbase was briefly stormed by the army’s elite forces last March, but the militants repelled that attack.
Meanwhile, near Damascus, Syria’s military said it had captured from rebel fighters a major suburb on the eastern edge of the capital. Activists disputed the government’s claim of having taken control of Qaboun, one of the few remaining areas under rebel control in Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-stronghold that forms an arc from the northern to the eastern edge of Damascus.
Al Ikhbariya state TV later aired a report from the neighbourhood’s south-eastern edge, as gunfire crackled in the background. A field commander, who marched amid sand berms that rebels used for cover, said the neighbourhood would soon be “100 per cent free” of rebels.
Syrian state media later reported that the rebels had agreed to a government offer of safe passage out of Qaboun, similar to evacuation deals reached with opposition fighters in other areas of the country.
If confirmed, this increases the government’s security belt around the capital and strips the opposition of another prized territory in the area. Rebels had held on to a number of neighbourhoods at the edge of Damascus since the early days of the uprising, representing the most threatening opposition presence near the government’s seat of power.
Russian and Syrian jets have also intensified their attacks on the town of Maskaneh, the last main town in the region west of the Euphrates River in rural eastern Aleppo countryside. The Syrian Observatory reported the deaths of dozens of civilians since last week in the aerial bombing of the remaining villages and towns in the area still under ISIL control.
In the newly-liberated town of Tabqa, residents are emerging from a month living of heavy fighting and many weeks before that under siege with no water or electricity. Forty-eight hours after SDF announced the recapture of Tabqa, bodies were still visible in the street.
“There is a lot of illness spreading because of the bodies that are still scattered about, ” said 40-year-old market trader Abdel Rahman Shakrushi. “There are flies and dirt everywhere, which is affecting our health.”
He said hundreds of people were still missing in the town, with the bodies of many people killed in air strikes still believed to be under rubble.
* Associated Press