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.