US-backed forces battle Daesh in heart of Syria’s Raqqa

This frame grab from video released Thursday, July 6, 2017 and provided by Hawar News Agency, a Syrian Kurdish activist-run media group, shows Syrian citizens looks to U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters in the eastern side of Raqqa, Syria. The campaign to seize Raqqa City from IS has begun in earnest last month, when the Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by coalition airstrikes and U.S. special forces, launched a multi-pronged campaign on the city, after securing its countryside during months of fighting. (AP)
Updated 17 July 2017
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US-backed forces battle Daesh in heart of Syria’s Raqqa

BEIRUT: US-backed Syrian fighters fought Daesh militants in the heart of Raqqa, the extremists’ self-styled capital, on Monday, as scores of civilians fled areas controlled by the group.

The Kurdish-led group has been one of the most effective forces fighting Daesh in Syria, but has also clashed with Turkish-backed Syrian forces elsewhere in the country. As it battled Daesh in Raqqa, the SDF also fought Turkish-allied Syrian forces in Ein Daqna, in the neighboring Aleppo province, according to Syrian activists and Turkish media.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, aided by the US-led coalition, launched their offensive to capture Raqqa on June 6, and have since taken several areas. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday’s fighting is concentrated in Raqqa’s southwestern neighborhood of Yarmouk as well as a central area close to the Old City.

The SDF says intense fighting is underway in central Raqqa, adding that its fighters have taken positions near a centuries-old mosque known as the Old Mosque.

The SDF said 11 IS fighters have been killed in the clashes since Sunday. The Daesh-linked Aamaq news agency said 14 SDF fighters were killed in the fighting in Raqqa on Sunday alone.

The intensification of fighting comes a week after Iraqi forces declared victory against Daesh in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the largest the extremists have held. The loss of Raqqa would deal a major blow to Daesh, but the group still holds wide areas of the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, bordering Iraq.

The Kurdish-run Hawar News Agency says some 180 civilians were able to flee areas controlled by Daesh, while the Observatory put the number in the hundreds.

The SDF is dominated by a Kurdish militia known as the YPG, which Turkey views as an extension of the Kurdish insurgency raging in its own territory. Turkish troops and allied Syrian forces rolled into Syria last year in order to battle Daesh and halt the advance of the SDF. The US-led coalition has sought to stop the fighting between Turkey and the SDF, both of which are allies against Daesh.

EU impose sanctions on scientists, military officials

The EU imposed sanctions on 16 Syrian scientists and military officials on Monday for their suspected involvement in a chemical attack in northern Syria in April, which killed scores of civilians.

Western intelligence agencies accuse the government of Bashar Assad of carrying out the attack, arguing that rebels in the area would not have had the capabilities. The international chemical weapons watchdog said in June the nerve agent sarin was used.

Syrian officials have repeatedly denied using banned toxins.

The measures, agreed upon by EU foreign ministers at a meeting in Brussels, target eight Syrian scientists and eight top military officials.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said they showed Europe’s resolve “in dealing with those who are responsible for chemical weapons attacks.”

This takes the number of people placed under EU sanctions related to the Syrian conflict to 255, the Council of EU governments in a statement. Existing EU sanctions are also in place on 67 companies linked to Assad’s government.

Washington issued sanctions in the same month of the attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, placing restrictions on hundreds of employees and scientists at a Syrian government agency believed to have developed chemical weapons

Syria joined a chemicals weapons convention in 2013 under a Russian-US agreement, averting military intervention under then US President Barack Obama.

While the EU has no military role in the conflict, it is the biggest aid donor and has said it will not help rebuild Syria until a peace process involving a transition away from Assad’s government is underway.

But the 28-member bloc’s position on Syria is in flux after France’s new President Emmanuel Macron broke with the previous French government position by saying he saw no legitimate successor to Assad and no longer considered his departure a pre-condition to resolving the war.


Syria rebels dig in for Daraa fight

Updated 47 sec ago
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Syria rebels dig in for Daraa fight

  • The city is split between rebels, who hold the southern Old City, and regime forces who control the modern districts and government posts to the north
  • Far away from geopolitical interests, civilians are worried about what the escalation could bring
DARAA: On a tense urban frontline in Syria’s Daraa, rebel Atallah Qutayfan has been steadily reinforcing his defensive post for weeks in anticipation of a looming assault by government troops.
The 25-year-old spends his days stacking sandbags to shore up his post overlooking a market in the southern city, and monitoring the amassing regime forces nearby.
“Their reconnaissance planes are constantly above the city. There are daily clashes and they try to infiltrate our positions, but we’ve stopped them,” says Qutayfan.
“Our commanders told us to be ready for an attack by regime forces — and we’re on high alert.”
As loyalist forces mop up the last pockets of resistance around the capital, President Bashar Assad appears to already have set his sights on his next target: Daraa.
The city is split between rebels, who hold the southern Old City, and regime forces who control the modern districts and government posts to the north.
Opposition forces still hold more than two-thirds of the surrounding 3,730-square-kilometer province which borders Jordan.
Seizing the border area could bring the regime both military and economic security, analysts have said.
And a victory in Daraa city would carry symbolic weight — it was the cradle of Syria’s seven-year uprising against Assad’s rule.
The resurgent regime just this month dealt rebels their biggest blow yet by recapturing Eastern Ghouta, the former opposition stronghold outside Damascus.
That freed up troops who had spent years bombing the Ghouta front.
“After Ghouta, the regime escalated its bombing against us with surface-to-surface missiles, machine-gun fire, mortars, tanks, and heavy artillery,” says rebel fighter Fahed Abu Hatem.
In response, Abu Hatem says, his forces reinforced their positions, dug trenches and erected fresh barricades.
Gritting his teeth, rebel field commander Ibrahim Musalima, 27, insists the extra measures are necessary.
“It’s not fear, it’s readiness,” says Musalima.
“We’re setting up lines of defense and attack, and upping our coordination with the Quneitra rebels to the west, all the way to the border with Suweida to the east.”
Quneitra is the province directly to Daraa’s west, and Suweida neighbors it to the east.
Sections of the three provinces make up a “de-escalation zone” agreed in May 2017 by rebel backer Turkey and regime allies Russia and Iran.
The US and Jordan have also backed the zone, announcing alongside Russia in July that a cessation of hostilities would begin in the southern sliver.
Despite the steadily increasing violence, Musalima says the south’s rebel factions had been “advised” by their foreign backers not to provoke the regime or its loyalist militias, and to preserve the de-escalation zone.
The subtle warning belies the region’s importance to rival actors in Syria’s complex war.
Assad is keen to recapture the strategic Nasib crossing with Jordan, which the regime lost to rebels in 2015 but whose recapture could generate desperately needed income from cross-border trade.
Meanwhile, the presence of Iran-backed militias in southern Syria, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, has irked neighboring Israel.
Far away from these geopolitical interests, civilians are worried about what the escalation could bring.
Umm Mohammad Al-Baghdadi, a 45-year-old nurse in a field clinic in Daraa, describes a constant stream of wounded from shelling and bombing.
“We can’t say we’re not scared of more escalation. After the end of Ghouta, of course the regime is going to go for any area that opposes it,” she says.
“It wants to snuff out the uprising generally, and in Daraa especially.”
Around 30,000 people live in rebel-held parts of Daraa city, according to the local opposition-run council.
Its head Mohammad Abdulmajid Al-Musalima, 38, says residents struggle to cope with severe shortages of water and electricity, and widespread destruction.
“Women and children will bear the brunt of any military escalation, because they’re the main pressure point used by the regime against opposition groups,” says Musalima.
Rebels and local opposition officials alike insist Daraa’s fate will not resemble Ghouta’s, where a five-year siege had worn down rival rebel groups.
“We’re saying to the regime: Daraa is not Ghouta. The armed opposition here is holding it together,” says Mohammad Al-Masri, 60, a member of the local council.
“Here, the front lines are holding on. Our popular base and the rebels are in agreement: Daraa is our city, and we will stand firm in it,” says Masri.