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US-backed Syria force closes in on Daesh-held city

By Reuters - Jun 07,2016 - Last updated at Jun 07,2016

In this undated file image posted by the Raqqa Media Centre, militants wave the Daesh’s flag from a damaged display of a government fighter jet following the battle for the Tabaqa air base (AP photo)

BEIRUT/BAGHDAD — US-backed Syrian fighters have surrounded the Daesh-held city of Manbij from three sides as they press a major new offensive against the terrorists near the Turkish border, a spokesman for the terrorists said on Monday.

But in a sign of the difficulty world powers have faced in building a coalition to take on the self-declared caliphate, the slow pace of a separate assault by the Iraqi army on a militant bastion near Baghdad caused a rift between the Shiite-led government and powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militia.

The simultaneous assaults on Manbij in Syria and Fallujah in Iraq, at opposite ends of Daesh territory, are two of the biggest operations yet against the terrorist group in what Washington says is the year it hopes to roll back the caliphate.

The Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), including a Kurdish militia and Arab allies that joined it last year, launched the Manbij attack last week to drive Daesh from its last stretch of the Syrian-Turkish frontier. If successful it could cut the militants' main access route to the outside world, paving the way for an assault on their Syrian capital Raqqa.

Last week Iraqi forces also rolled into the southern outskirts of Fallujah, an insurgent stronghold 750km down the Euphrates River from Manbij just an hour's drive from Baghdad.

The SDF in Syria are backed by US air strikes and a small contingent of American special forces. The Iraqi army is also backed by US air power, as well as by powerful Iran-backed Shiite militia led by politicians who have emerged as rivals of Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi.

In Syria, the government of President Bashar Assad also launched a separate offensive last week against Daesh, with Russian air support.

The assaults by Daesh disparate enemies on a variety of fronts have put unprecedented pressure on the group, although its militants have put up strong resistance so far.

The offensives have also put large numbers of civilians in fresh peril. The United Nations estimates 50,000 civilians are trapped in Iraq’s besieged Fallujah, and more than 200,000 are at risk of being displaced by fighting around Syria’s Manbij.

 

Race to Raqqa

 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group that reports on the war, said the US-backed forces in northern Syria had cut the road north from Manbij to Daesh-held Jarabulus at the Turkish border.

Sharfan Darwish, spokesman for the SDF-allied Manbij Military Council, said the US-backed alliance had advanced to within 6km of Manbij, and the attack was going to plan. More than 150 terrorists had been killed, with 50 of the bodies in SDF hands, he said.

Homes being used by Daesh members were now empty as they had left with their families, he said: “They took everything they could and left the city.”

Reuters was unable to verify the account, and Daesh fighters could not be reached.

The SDF included the commander of one of the groups, Faysal Abu Layla of the Sun of the North Battalions, who died of wounds caused by a mortar bomb, Darwish said.

The Observatory said 56 Daesh members and 19 SDF fighters had been killed so far. It also said Daesh fighters had sent their families out of Manbij, but did not confirm Darwish’s account that fighters themselves had left.

The Syria fight against Daesh is taking place in the midst of a multisided five-year civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and made millions homeless.

Russia and the US, both enemies of the terror group, support opposing sides in the wider conflict and are leading separate air campaigns. They have cooperated since last year on diplomacy to end the wider war, largely fruitlessly.

The SDF and its Kurdish faction have proven to be the first US allies on the ground in Syria that are effective against Daesh, and have been bearing towards the militants’ Syrian capital, Raqqa. The Syrian government has also been advancing in the area with Russian support, in what some of its allies call a “race to Raqqa” to prevent US allies from dominating territory won from the group.

Warplanes believed to belong to Russia or the Syrian army killed at least 17 people in an air raid on a market in a Daesh-held town in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor on Monday, the observatory reported. The province links Daesh’s Syrian territories with its Iraq strongholds further down the Euphrates. Moscow denied its planes had flown in the area near the reported strike.

 

A Syrian military source said the army had captured a crossroads in its latest offensive, from which it could advance towards Raqqa, Deir Ezzor or eastern Aleppo.

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