US-backed force ‘mopping up’ last Daesh holdouts in Raqqa

In this file photo, a U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighter runs in front of a damaged building as he crosses a street on the front line in Raqqa, Syria. (AP)
Updated 21 September 2017

US-backed force ‘mopping up’ last Daesh holdouts in Raqqa

BEIRUT: Syrian fighters backed by US special forces battled Thursday to clear the last remaining Daesh militants holed up in their crumbling stronghold of Raqqa.
Most of Raqqa, long a byword for the militants’ most gruesome atrocities, is now in the hands of US-backed fighters supported by waves of heavy air strikes by a military coalition led by Washington.
“The Syrian Democratic Forces and American special forces began a mopping up operation in Raqqa,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday.
The Britain-based monitor said militant holdouts were still hiding in underground shelters in a part of the city center where a football stadium and former government buildings are located.
But the operation was being slowed down by large numbers of mines planted by the militants in the city, where they have been under siege for three months, it said.
The extremists seized Raqqa in early 2014, making it their de facto Syria capital. They are thought to have used the city to plan attacks abroad.
On Wednesday the SDF said they were in the “final stages” of capturing Raqqa as the Observatory said the US-backed fighters controlled 90 percent of the northern city.
The US-led coalition supporting the SDF estimated that 65-70 percent of Raqqa was under the control of the alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.
Across the border In Iraq, security forces backed by paramilitary units launched a dawn assault on a besieged Daesh-held pocket around the northern town of Hawija, just days after attacking the jihadists’ only other foothold in the country.
The territory still held by Daesh has been dwindling fast since its defeat in Iraq’s second city Mosul in July, with stronghold after stronghold coming under assault on both sides of the border with Syria.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi predicted the assault on the Hawija region would swiftly bring a new victory against the crumbling jihadists.
After the defeat of Daesh in Mosul and the recapture of adjacent areas, Hawija and neighboring towns form the last enclave still held by Daesh in Iraq apart from a section of the Euphrates Valley downstream from the border with Syria.
“Greetings to all of our forces, who are waging several battles of liberation at the same time and who are winning victory after victory and this will be another, with the help of God,” Abadi said.
An AFP correspondent heard heavy shelling around the Daesh-held town of Sharqat where Iraqi forces have been massing in recent days.
The US-led coalition fighting Daesh hailed the new offensive by the Iraqi security forces against the jihadist group.
“Daesh is losing ground and failing in every battle. Soon ISIS will have no sanctuary in Iraq,” said coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon.
Humanitarian organizations expressed concern for the fate of civilians caught up in the offensive.
“The 85,000 civilians still in and around Hawija, including around 40,000 children, now face a terrifying time as they worry about getting caught up in the fighting or being hit by an air strike,” said International Rescue Committee acting country director Jason Kajer.
“For those who decide to flee, there is a significant risk of being targeted by Daesh snipers or killed by a mine.”
In Syria, tens of thousands of civilians have fled the Raqqa fighting in recent months but thousands are still trapped inside the city according to the UN’S Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
“We now estimate that up to 15,000 civilians remain trapped in Raqqa city, although exact figures remain difficult to verify due to the situation on the ground,” OCHA’s Linda Tom told AFP.
She said the civilians, many of them women and children, “are facing incredibly difficult conditions,” including food, water and medical shortages.
Daesh has seen the territory under its control fast diminish in recent months in the face of multiple offensives against its fighters in both Iraq and Syria.
On Tuesday, Iraqi forces launched an attack up the Euphrates Valley against the other one of Daesh’s two remaining enclaves in Iraq.
And in Syria’s eastern province of Deir Ezzor, IS faces twin assaults — one by Russian-backed government troops and the other by SDF fighters.
Daesh also holds pockets of territory elsewhere in Syria, notably in eastern parts of the central provinces of Homs and Hama, but it has come under attack by Russian-backed government forces there too.

US accepts Assad staying in Syria — but will not give aid

Updated 18 December 2018

US accepts Assad staying in Syria — but will not give aid

  • James Jeffrey said that Assad needed to compromise as he had not yet won the brutal seven-year civil war
  • Trump’s administration has acknowledged, if rarely so explicitly, that Assad is likely to stay

WASHINGTON: The US said Monday it was no longer seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad but renewed warnings it would not fund reconstruction unless the regime is “fundamentally different.”

James Jeffrey, the US special representative in Syria, said that Assad needed to compromise as he had not yet won the brutal seven-year civil war, estimating that some 100,000 armed opposition fighters remained in Syria.

“We want to see a regime that is fundamentally different. It’s not regime change —  we’re not trying to get rid of Assad,” Jeffrey said at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

Estimating that Syria would need $300-400 billion to rebuild, Jeffrey warned that Western powers and international financial institutions would not commit funds without a change of course.

“There is a strong readiness on the part of Western nations not to ante up money for that disaster unless we have some kind of idea that the government is ready to compromise and thus not create yet another horror in the years ahead,” he said.

Former President Barack Obama had called for Assad to go, although he doubted the wisdom of a robust US intervention in the complex Syrian war. and kept a narrow military goal of defeating the Daesh extremist group.

President Donald Trump’s administration has acknowledged, if rarely so explicitly, that Assad is likely to stay.

But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned in October that the US would not provide “one single dollar” for Syria’s reconstruction if Iran stays.

Jeffrey also called for the ouster of Iranian forces, whose presence is strongly opposed by neighboring Israel, although he said the US accepted that Tehran would maintain some diplomatic role in the country.

Jeffrey also said that the US wanted a Syria that does not wage chemical weapons attacks or torture its own citizens.

He acknowledged, however, that the US may not find an ally anytime soon in Syria, saying: “It doesn’t have to be a regime that we Americans would embrace as, say, qualifying to join the European Union if the European Union would take Middle Eastern countries.”