BEIRUT, Feb 19, (AFP): Kurdish-led forces backed by international air strikes have advanced to within a few kilometres (miles) of a key Islamic State group stronghold in northeastern Syria, a monitor said on Friday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were now just five kilometres (three miles) from the town of Al-Shadadi in Hasakeh province. The advance comes on the third day of a major offensive by the SDF, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.
The group has taken a series of villages and also cut two key IS supply routes in the region, one from Al-Shadadi to Mosul in neighbouring Iraq, and a second from the town to Raqa, the group’s de facto Syrian capital.
The Observatory said SDF fighters had also taken the Kibabeh oil field to the northeast of Al-Shadadi, after heavy fighting and multiple air strikes by the US-led coalition fighting IS. The offensive has prompted the families of some IS fighters in Al-Shadadi to flee south to Deir Ezzor province, most of which is controlled by the jihadists, the Observatory said.
The SDF are also engaged in a major operation in Aleppo province further west, where they have seized key territory from rebel forces, angering neighbouring Turkey. Ankara considers the Kurdish component of the SDF to be the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, an outlawed group that has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state. Turkey has shelled SDF positions in Aleppo province since Saturday, but intensified its artillery fire overnight and targeted new areas held by Kurdish forces, the Observatory said. For the first time, the shelling hit the area’s main Kurdish town, Afrin, killing two civilians and wounding 28.
Russia is accusing Turkey of helping jihadists recruit fighters from the Caucasus and Central Asia to fight in Syria, according to a letter sent to the UN Security Council. Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said in the letter dated February 10 that recruiters from the Islamic State group had reportedly established a network in the Turkish city of Antalya for foreign fighters from the former Soviet Union.
The network is led by a Russian national identified as Ruslan Rastyamovich Khaibullov, who lives in Antalya with his family and has Turkish permanent residence. In September, a group of 1,000 IS fighters from Europe and Central Asia were taken from Turkey to Syria through the border crossing at Gaziantep, said the letter. Russia has repeatedly accused Turkey of helping foreign fighters reach Syria and has stepped up its attacks after Ankara shot down a Russian warplane in November. The recruiters are active in Turkish detention centers where they connect lawyers with foreigners who agree to join IS ranks once they are released, according to the letter.