Fighters in Syria’s Raqqa prepare for civilian handover

Above, fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces inspect the bunker of the Daesh militants under a stadium in Raqqa, Syria on October 18. (Reuters)
Updated 20 October 2017
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Fighters in Syria’s Raqqa prepare for civilian handover

RAQQA, Syria: US-backed forces who captured Raqqa from the Daesh group prepared to hand the Syrian city over to a civilian authority, with some of their fighters already headed to the next battle.
Inside the city, positions that had long been manned by fighters of the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were abandoned, though some remained in the central Al-Naim square, dancing and ululating as they celebrated their victory.
The SDF battled for more than four months, with US-led coalition support, to capture the city that was once the de facto Syrian capital of Daesh’s self-styled “caliphate.”
They announced the end of combat on Tuesday, though operations to clear explosives and seek out sleeper cells were ongoing.
Raqqa’s capture leaves the jihadists with little remaining territory in Syria, most of it in neighboring Deir Ezzor province, where some SDF fighters were already headed to carry on the campaign.
“Some of the forces withdrew, others will remain in the city until we finish the minor combing operations, then the city will be handed over to the civil council,” said SDF commander Rojda Felat.
“After the end of military operations, a large part of the forces have moved out of Raqqa to other areas, including Deir Ezzor,” added Mustefa Bali, spokesman for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main component of the SDF.
At least 16 civilians including several children were killed in air strikes in Deir Ezzor Thursday believed to have been carried out by Russian jets, a monitor said.
“The civilians were killed as they tried to cross the Euphrates river near the town of Abu Kamal,” the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Abu Kamal is one of the few remaining urban strongholds of Daesh in Syria.
SDF spokesman Talal Sello said two days of mopping-up operations in Raqqa had so far uncovered no additional Daesh fighters, but that interrogations of those who were captured or surrendered during the battle were ongoing.
“SDF intelligence is investigating them, including a number of foreigners,” he told AFP.
The city’s capture Tuesday came after the SDF seized Daesh’s last two main positions, the municipal stadium and national hospital, in quick succession.
Both sites have been heavily mined and remain to be cleared, SDF commanders said.
“There are bodies inside the hospital itself that we haven’t yet removed because of the mines,” said commander Clara Raqqa.
Responsibility for the city, which lies in ruins and empty of civilians, will be assumed by the Raqqa Civil Council, a body of local officials formed six months ago.
The official handover is expected to come as early as Friday, but the body has already spent months working on reconstruction plans.
They will inherit responsibility for a ghost town that lacks basic services and infrastructure.
On the city’s streets, blankets that had been hung in front of windows to shield residents from the view of snipers fluttered in the wind, but there was no movement otherwise.
A few scrawny cats and dogs picked their way over the rubble that is strewn across the city, up to 80 percent of which was described as uninhabitable by the UN last month.
In Al-Naim square, fighters of the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the female branch of the YPG, gathered to hold a press conference celebrating their contribution to the city’s capture.
Some of the battle’s commanders were female, a point of pride for Kurdish forces, particularly given Daesh’s infamous oppression of women.
“Raqqa was liberated by the will of free women,” the YPJ said in a statement.
SDF flags now cover Al-Naim, where the jihadists once displayed the severed heads of their enemies.
In the center of the square, a large yellow flag has been raised, featuring a photograph of jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Ocalan heads the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey, where it is considered a “terrorist” group.
He is idolized by many in the YPG, which Ankara says is the Syrian branch of the PKK.
Daesh captured mostly Sunni Arab Raqqa in 2014, and under its rule the city became infamous for gruesome abuses and as a planning center for attacks abroad.
Its loss deals a major blow to the jihadists’ dreams of statehood, and comes after their July defeat in Iraq’s second city Mosul, their other major urban stronghold.


Netanyahu: Israel will continue operations in Syria against Iran

Updated 6 min 45 sec ago
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Netanyahu: Israel will continue operations in Syria against Iran

  • Russia said on Monday it would supply an S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Syria in two weeks despite strong Israeli objections
  • Israel has long lobbied Moscow not to provide the S-300 to Syria

JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday Israel would continue its military operations in Syria, after Russia announced it would supply an advanced anti-aircraft system to its Syrian ally.
“We will continue to act to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and we will continue the military coordination between the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and the Russian army,” Netanyahu told reporters before boarding a flight to New York, where he will address the UN General Assembly.
Russia said on Monday it would supply an S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Syria in two weeks despite strong Israeli objections, a week after Moscow accused Israel of indirectly causing the downing of a Russian military jet in Syria.
Russia, which fights in Syria to support the government against rebels and militants, has said Syrian anti-aircraft batteries shot its IL-20 surveillance plane down by mistake shortly after Israeli jets hit a nearby target.
Moscow accused Israel of creating dangerous conditions that caused the incident.
Israel, which has carried out air strikes in Syria many times during the civil war, said after the incident it would work to improve “deconfliction” of its missions with Russian forces, but would not halt them.
Netanyahu spoke by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday. In his remarks on Tuesday, Netanyahu said he had agreed with Putin “that the working teams from the IDF and the Russian army will meet soon.”
The Israeli leader made the remarks after convening his security cabinet to discuss the tensions with Moscow.
“Over the past three years, Israel has been highly successful in preventing the Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and Iranian attempts to transfer lethal weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Netanyahu said.
But he said there had been occasions when things had not gone smoothly, calling Syria’s downing of the Russian plane “tragic.”
Israel has long lobbied Moscow not to provide the S-300 to Syria, fearing this would hinder its aerial capability to strike the forces of Iran and its Hezbollah allies in Syria.