US-backed forces tighten grip around ISIL
BEIRUT / ANKARA
REUTERS photoU.S.-backed forces fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) near the Syrian-Turkish border said on June 9 that they had reached the militants’ last main route in and out of their stronghold in the area, the city of Manbij.
Monitors confirmed that the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) - an alliance which includes the Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) armed wing, the People’s Defense Units (YPG), and Arab allies - had advanced to within firing distance of the road, one week into a campaign to push the militants out of their foothold along the frontier.
Manbij is very close to Turkey’s border with Syria and Ankara links the PYD and the YPG to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
YPG militants have already captured much of northeast Syria near the Turkish border, but their advance west of the Euphrates River to close off the frontier once and for all was limited by strong opposition from Turkey.
U.S. officials said last week the Manbij operation would be overwhelmingly comprised of Syrian Arab fighters.
Washington hopes the operation will choke off ISIL’s last major link to the outside world, as the militants have used the border for years to receive supplies and manpower, and more recently to send back fighters for attacks in Europe.
“We have reached the road that links Manbij and Aleppo, from the west,” Sharfan Darwish, spokesperson for the SDF-allied Manbij Military Council, told Reuters.
Darwish appeared to be referring to the highway between Manbij and ISIL-held al-Bab, further west. That highway also leads to Aleppo.
British-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 130 ISIL militants had died since the Manbij offensive was launched, as well as more than 20 SDF fighters.
France has deployed special forces in northern Syria to advise the SDF, a defense ministry official said on June 9.
“The offensive at Manbij is clearly being backed by a certain number of states including France. It’s the usual support - it’s advisory,” the official told AFP, without giving further details on the deployment.
Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels, meanwhile, reopened a vital supply line by capturing two villages from ISIL as it came under pressure on a range of fronts in Syria and Iraq.
Rebel fighters reopened a key supply route linking their two main bastions in Aleppo province - Marea and Azaz.
The observatory’s Rami Abdel Rahman said ISIL fighters even pulled back from towns and villages east of the supply route, including Dudyan near the border.
Defense ministers from Russia, Iran and Syria will discuss ways to enhance their cooperation in fighting ISIL and al-Qaeda during a meeting in Tehran on June 9, Interfax news agency quoted Russia’s defense ministry as saying.
The United Nations, meanwhile, will not hold another round of Syria peace talks in Geneva until officials on all sides agree on the parameters for a political transition deal, which has an Aug. 1 deadline, U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said on June 9.
“The time is not yet mature for the official third round of the intra-Syrian talks,” de Mistura told reporters.
Meanwhile, Turkey condemned on June 9 Russian air strikes on mosques, hospitals, schools and other civilian buildings in Syria and said such crimes would not go unpunished.
Russian strikes had been targeting hospitals in the city of Aleppo since June 8, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement, describing such actions as “inhumane.”