Islamist fighters advance in Syria despite US strikes

Islamist fighters advance in Syria despite US strikes

Islamist fighters advance in Syria despite US strikes

An image grab taken from a video released by Aamaq News, a Youtube channel which posts videos from the areas under the ISIL's control purportedly shows an IS militant firing a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launcher during fighting near the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane on Sept. 23. AFP Photo

U.S. and coalition planes pounded the positions of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria again on Sept. 24, but the strikes did not halt the fighters' advance in a Kurdish area where fleeing refugees told of villages burnt and captives beheaded.

A third night of U.S.-led air strikes late on Sept. 24 targeted ISIL-controlled oil refineries in eastern Syria as the United States and its partners moved to choke off a crucial source of revenue for the militant group, U.S. officials said.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates joined in the  strikes by piloted and drone aircraft targeting facilities around al Mayadin, al Hasakah, and Abu Kamal, the U.S. military said.

The military said the targeted refineries, which are prefabricated and constructed off-site so they can be transported and made operational quickly, were capable of producing millions in revenue and provided fuel for ISIL operations.

The United States on Sept. 24 also designated two dozen individuals and groups as foreign terrorists or terrorist facilitators, enabling it to freeze assets and block financial transactions as part of its offensive against ISIL

Syrian Kurds said ISIL had responded to U.S. attacks by intensifying its assault near the Turkish border in northern Syria, where 140,000 civilians have fled in recent days in the fastest exodus of the three-year civil war.

Washington and its Arab allies killed scores of ISIL fighters in the opening 24 hours of air strikes, the first direct U.S. foray into Syria two weeks after Obama pledged to hit the group on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border.

But the intensifying advance on the northern town of Kobani showed the difficulty Washington faces in defeating Islamist fighters in Syria, where it lacks strong military allies on the ground.

"Those air strikes are not important. We need soldiers on the ground," said Hamed, a refugee who fled into Turkey from the ISIL advance.

Mazlum Bergaden, a teacher from Kobani who crossed the border on Sept. 25 with his family, said two of his brothers had been taken captive by ISIL fighters.

"The situation is very bad. After they kill people, they are burning the villages. ... When they capture any village, they behead one person to make everyone else afraid," he said. "They are trying to eradicate our culture, purge our nation."

ISIL advances on Kurds

Even as ISIL outposts elsewhere have been struck, the fighters have accelerated their campaign to capture Kobane, a Kurdish city on the border with Turkey. Nearly 140,000 Syrian Kurds have fled into Turkey since last week, the fastest exodus of the entire three-year civil war.

An ISIL source, speaking to Reuters via online messaging, said the group had taken several villages to the west of Kobani. Footage posted on YouTube appeared to show ISILfighters using weapons including artillery as they battled Kurdish forces near Kobane. The Islamists were shown raising the group's black flag after tearing down a Kurdish one.

A Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said  the advance had been rapid three days ago but was slowed by the U.S.-led air strikes.

But Öcalan Iso, deputy leader of Kurdish forces defending Kobane, said more militants and tanks had arrived in the area since the coalition began air strikes on the group.

French hostage killed

Meanwhile, Islamist militants in Algeria boasted in a video they had beheaded a French hostage captured on Sunday to punish Paris for joining air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq. French President Francois Hollande confirmed the execution.

"My determination is total and this aggression only strengthens it," Hollande said. "The military air strikes will continue as long as necessary."

The United States said it was still assessing whether Mohsin al-Fadhli, a senior figure in the al Qaeda-linked group Khorasan, had been killed in a U.S. strike in Syria.

A U.S. official earlier said Fadhli, an associate of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, was thought to have been killed in the first day of strikes on Syria. The Pentagon said any confirmation could take time.

Washington describes Khorasan as a separate group from ISIL, made up of al Qaeda veterans planning attacks on the West from a base in Syria.

As Obama tried in meetings in New York to widen his coalition, Belgium said it was likely to contribute warplanes in the coming days, and the Netherlands said it would deploy six F-16s to support U.S.-led strikes.

The initial days of U.S. strikes suggest one aim is to hamper ISIL's ability to operate across the Iraqi-Syrian frontier. On Sept. 24 U.S.-led forces hit at least 13 targets in and around Albu Kamal, one of the main border crossings between Iraq and Syria, after striking 22 targets there on Sept. 23 said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a body which monitors the conflict in Syria.

The U.S. military confirmed it had struck inside Syria northwest of al Qaim, the Iraqi town at the Albu Kamal border crossing. It also struck inside Iraq west of Baghdad and near the Iraqi Kurdish capital Arbil on Sept. 24.

An Islamist fighter in the Albu Kamal area reached by phone said there had been at least nine strikes on Sept. 24 by "crusader forces." Targets included an industrial area.

Perched on the main Euphrates valley highway, Albu Kamal controls the route from Islamic State's de facto capital, Raqqa, in Syria to the front lines in western Iraq and down the Euphrates to the western and southern outskirts of Baghdad.

ISIL's ability to move fighters and weapons between Syria and Iraq has provided an important tactical advantage for the group in both countries: Fighters sweeping in from Syria helped capture much of northern Iraq in June, and weapons they seized and sent back to Syria helped them in battle there.
France, which has confined its air strikes to Iraq, said it would stay the course despite the killing of hostage Herve Gourdel, 55, a mountain guide captured on vacation in Algeria on Sept. 21 by a group claiming loyalty to ISIL.

In a video released by the Caliphate Soldiers group entitled "a message of blood to the French government", gunmen paraded Gourdel's severed head after making him kneel, pushing him on his side and holding him down.
Damascus: Campaign goes in the right direction
The campaign has blurred the traditional lines of Middle East alliances, pitting a U.S. coalition comprising countries opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against fighters that form the most powerful opposition to Assad on the ground.

The attacks have so far encountered no objection, and even signs of approval, from Assad's Syrian government. Syrian state TV led its news broadcast with Wednesday's air strikes on the border with Iraq, saying "the USA and its partners" had launched raids against "the terrorist organisation Islamic State."

U.S. officials say they informed both Assad and his main ally Iran in advance of their intention to strike but did not coordinate with them.

Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have joined in the strikes. All are ruled by Sunni Muslims and are staunch opponents of Assad, a member of a Shiite-derived sect, and his main regional ally, Shiite Iran.

But some of Assad's opponents fear the Syrian leader could exploit the U.S. military campaign to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of Western countries, and that strikes against ISILe could solidify his grip on power.