Syria Kurds seize key base from ISIL in new blow
BEIRUT - Agence France-Presse
Kurdish fighters gesture while carrying their parties' flags in Tel Abyad of Raqqa governorate after they said they took control of the area June 15, 2015. Reuters PhotoSyrian Kurdish fighters and rebel allies overnight seized a key base held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) north of its Raqqa stronghold, in a new blow for the jihadists.
The capture of the Brigade 93 base comes just a week after ISIL was expelled from Tal Abyad, a town on the border with Turkey that served as a important conduit for the extremist group.
Syrian Kurdish forces and Arab fighters seized the base in Raqqa province with backing from the US-led coalition fighting ISIL, which launched a series of air strikes overnight.
"We have complete control over Brigade 93 and are currently sweeping it for explosives," Redur Khalil, a spokesman for the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) told AFP on June 23.
The base near the town of Ain Issa is about 55 kilometres (35 miles) north of Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIL's self-declared Islamic "caliphate" in territory it holds in Syria and Iraq.
Khalil said fighting was ongoing for control of Ain Issa, with YPG and allied Syrian rebel forces hoping to seize it from ISIL forces.
"It is our next target because we want to secure the region and Ain Issa is very close to the Brigade 93 base and also the main road that runs through the area."
Ain Issa and Brigade 93 both lie on a key highway that runs between Kurdish-held territory in Aleppo province and Hasakeh province, to the west and east respectively of Raqqa province.
The same route also links territory held by ISIL in Aleppo and Hasakeh provinces.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the capture of the base, and the advance of the anti-ISIL forces on Ain Issa, adding that at least 26 ISIL fighters were killed in US-led air strikes in the area on Monday.
"The Kurdish forces and the rebels have control of the west and southwestern parts of the town, but fighting is ongoing elsewhere inside," said Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman.
"IS's [ISIL's] defence lines have now been pushed back to the outskirts of Raqqa city because the area between Raqqa and Ain Issa is militarily weak and they have no fortifications in that area, which is mostly open plains," he added.
The advance is the latest success for YPG forces and their rebel allies, backed by US-led air power.
On June 16, they captured Tal Abyad, on the Turkish border, which had been held by ISIL for a year, depriving the group of a key conduit through which it brought in fighters and weapons and exported black market oil.
Kurdish forces have been chipping away at ISIL territory in the northern Raqqa province for months, after successfully repelling an attack by the jihadists on the border town of Kobane in January.
The YPG has emerged as "arguably the most effective fighting force against ISIL in Syria," analyst Sirwan Kajjo said after the capture of Tal Abyad.
"They are well-organised, disciplined and are big believers in their cause."
Khalil said the Kurdish-rebel force had "excellent" coordination with the US-led coalition fighting ISIL, but repeated a longstanding Syrian Kurdish call for better weapons to take on the jihadists.
He declined to comment on where the anti-ISIL coalition would focus their attentions next, but suggested an operation against Raqqa was unlikely in the short-term.
"Raqqa is much further away, and well-defended, it would require significant forces and weapons," he said.
Elsewhere, Syria's antiquities chief on June 23 confirmed ISIL had destroyed two ancient religious mausoleums in the old city of Palmyra.
Maamoun Abdulkarim said the extremists had blown up the tombs of Mohamed bin Ali and Nizar Abu Bahaaeddine, two Muslim figures.
The jihadists consider tombstones and mausoleums to be a violation of its strict interpretation of Islamic law, and has regularly destroyed both on territory it controls.
Meanwhile in Israel, Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon pledged to track down Druze rioters responsible for "lynching" a wounded Syrian who died after being dragged from an Israeli ambulance and beaten.
The incident comes as Druze in Israel raise concerns about the fate of the community in Syria after advances by rebels on majority-Druze areas and an incident in which Al-Qaeda's local affiliate shot at least 20 members of the community.