WASHINGTON/BEIRUT, June 1, (Agencies): Thousands of US-backed fighters opened a major new front in Syria’s war, launching an offensive to drive Islamic State out of a swathe of northern Syria it uses as a logistics base, and were reported on Wednesday to be making rapid progress. The operation, which began on Tuesday after weeks of quiet preparations, aims to choke off the group’s access to Syrian land along the Turkish border that the militants have long used to move foreign fighters back and forth to Europe. “It’s significant in that it’s their last remaining funnel” to Europe, a US military official told Reuters.
A small number of US special operations forces will support the push on the ground, acting as advisers and staying some distance back from the front lines, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss military planning. “They’ll be as close as they need to be for the (Syrian fighters) to complete the operation. But they will not engage in direct combat,” the official said. The operation will also count on support from US-led coalition air strikes as well as from ground-based firing positions across the border in Turkey.
Driving Islamic State from its last remaining foothold at the Turkish border has been a top priority of the US-led campaign against the group. The group controls around 80 km (50 miles) of the frontier stretching west from Jarablus. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said US-led air strikes in support of the ground operation killed 15 civilians including three children near Manbij in the last 24 hours. The Observatory’s reporting is based on an activist network in Syria. It said the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance, the force that is conducting the assault to capture the tract of land known as the Manbij pocket, had taken 16 villages and were at a distance of 15 kms (9 miles) from Manbij town itself. The US officials said the operation would be overwhelmingly comprised of Syrian Arabs instead of forces with the Kurdish YPG militia, who will only represent about a fifth or a sixth of the overall force. This is seen as important to NATO member Turkey, which has opposed any further expansion of Syrian Kurdish sway at the frontier. Ankara sees the Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters — who already control an uninterrupted 400 km (250 mile) stretch of the border — to be terrorists and has been enraged by US backing for the militia in its battle with Islamic State in Syria. However, the Observatory said the Kurdish YPG militia made up the majority of the fighters taking part in the SDF assault. A US official said Turkey supported the offensive. SDF and YPG officials could not immediately be reached for comment. The US officials told Reuters the YPG would only fight to help clear Islamic State from the area around Manbij.
Syrian Arab fighters would be the ones to stabilise and secure it once Islamic State is gone, according to the operational plans. “After they take Manbij, the agreement is the YPG will not be staying … So you’ll have Syrian Arabs occupying traditional Syrian Arab land,” the official said. In Ankara, a Turkish military source said Turkey was not contributing to the operation. Ankara had been told by Washington about the push but could not back it because of the involvement of Kurdish YPG fighters and because it was beyond the range of artillery stationed in Turkey, the source said. The operation is happening ahead of an eventual push by the US-backed Syrian forces toward the city of Raqa, the Islamic State’s defacto capital in Syria and the prime objective in Syria for US military planners.
The US military official said depriving Islamic State of the Manbij pocket would help further isolate the militants and further undermine their ability to funnel supplies to Raqa. US President Barack Obama has authorised about 300 US special operations forces to operate on the ground from secret locations inside Syria to help coordinate with local forces to battle Islamic State there. Two US troops were wounded over the weekend in separate Islamic State attacks in Iraq and Syria, Pentagon officials said Tuesday. The casualty in Syria marks the first time an American soldier has been injured in that country since military advisors deployed there at the end of last year.
Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said the soldier was wounded by “indirect fire” — a term that typically refers to rocket or artillery fire — north of Raqa, the jihadists’ de facto capital. The Iraqi incident occurred near in northern Iraq near the city of Erbil, also by indirect fire, Davis said. He stressed the troops was “not on the front line” and “were not engaged in active combat.” But Defense Secretary Ashton Carter later told reporters that “of course” the troops were in fact in combat. President Barack Obama has repeatedly assured the American public there would be no US combat boots on the ground in Iraq or Syria, but troops are edging ever closer to the front lines, leading many to question what constitutes “combat” versus simply advising local partner forces.
At least 42 civilians including five children were killed in regime, Russian and US-led coalition air strikes in northern Syria on Wednesday, a monitor said. Regime air strikes killed 15 civilians in Idlib province, while Russian and regime air strikes killed at least 11 civilians in neighbouring Aleppo province, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Seven of those died in regime raids on a bus on the Castello road, a key supply route for the rebels out of the divided provincial capital of Aleppo city, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
Air strikes by the US-led coalition killed a further six civilians in Aleppo’s Manbij town and 10 in Raqa city in the province of the same name, both held by the Islamic State jihadist group, he said. The international coalition fighting IS on Wednesday said it had conducted 18 air strikes near Manbij, which is located some 20 miles (30 kilometres) west of the Euphrates river. Iraqi forces stalled at the fringes of Falluja, slowed in their advance Wednesday by concerns over the fate of trapped civilians and resistance from the Islamic State group. Fighting also raged hundreds of kms (miles) further up the Euphrates Valley in Syria, as US-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters opened a new front against the jihadists in the strategic Manbij pocket on the Turkish border.
After a week of shaping operations aimed at sealing the siege of Falluja, which lies just 50 kms (30 miles) west of Bagh-dad, elite forces launched a new, more aggressive phase on Monday morning. But they have so far been unable to reach the city centre and battle IS fighters in the streets of one of their historical strongholds.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said concern for the estimated 50,000 civilians the United Nations has said IS was using as human shields was slowing progress. “It would’ve been possible to end the battle quickly if protecting civilians wasn’t one of the foundations of our plan,” he told commanders in comments broadcast by state television.