Tag Archive: Gold Eagle Forces in the Levant


2017-09-05

DAMASCUS – Syria’s army broke a years-long Islamic State group siege on the government enclave of Deir Ezzor city on Tuesday as it battles to expel the jihadists from a key stronghold.

The jihadist group has already lost more than half of its nearby bastion of Raqa to US-backed forces, and the loss of Deir Ezzor city and the surrounding oil-rich province of the same name would leave it with only a handful of isolated outposts.

Syria’s army and allied fighters, backed by Russian air support, have been advancing towards Deir Ezzor on several fronts in recent weeks, and on Tuesday arrived inside the Brigade 137 base on its western edge.

“The Syrian Arab Army this afternoon broke the siege on Deir Ezzor city after its advancing forces arrived from the western province to Brigade 137,” state news agency SANA said.

“This great achievement is a strategic shift in the war on terror and confirms the ability of the Syrian Arab Army and its allies,” the army command said.

A local journalist said a minesweeper moved ahead of troops as they arrived at the base.

As they reached the soldiers who have been besieged inside the base and adjacent parts of the city, the troops embraced and shouted patriotic slogans.

Others fired in the air and flashed victory signs, as Syrian and Russian warplanes flew overhead.

Civilians gathered on either side of the road connecting the base to neighborhoods of the city to welcome the arriving troops.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad congratulated troops in a call to commanders at the base, his office said.

“Today you stood side-by-side with your comrades who came to your rescue and fought the hardest battles to break the siege on the city,” he said.

A source in the Deir Ezzor governorate said trucks loaded with food and medicine were expected to arrive inside the besieged city from Aleppo by this evening.

Government forces and tens of thousands of civilians in the city have been trapped under IS siege for over two years, facing food and medical shortages.

Early this year, the government-held parts of the city were cut in two by an IS offensive.

The army’s advance Tuesday breaks the siege on the northern part of the city, but a southern section, which includes a key military airport, remains surrounded, with the army now 15 kilometers (nine miles) away.

Around 100,000 people are believed to be inside government-held areas of Deir Ezzor, with perhaps 10,000 more in parts of the city held by IS.

Earlier Tuesday, the national flag was raised throughout government-held areas of the city in anticipation of celebrations upon the arrival of government soldiers.

Some residents had begun greeting each other with “Good morning of victory.”

The army still faces a potentially difficult battle to break the siege on the south of the city and free its remaining neighborhoods, and the surrounding province, from IS.

But for the government, its success would be “one of the most symbolic victories in its six-year war,” wrote Syria analyst Aron Lund in a recent analysis.

– ‘Spiral of defeats’ –

“The reopening of the Deir Ezzor road is a strategic disaster for IS, which is now at its weakest since 2014 and seems unable to break out of an accelerating spiral of defeats,” he added.

IS has lost over half its other Syrian stronghold, the city of Raqa, to an offensive by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.

And in neighboring Iraq, it has lost 90 percent of the territory it once held, including the city of Mosul.

Inside Deir Ezzor, residents have faced years of privation, with food becoming scare or unaffordable, and medicine and healthcare unavailable.

The government has continued to fly in limited supplies by helicopter, and the UN last year began airdropping humanitarian aid to the city.

Syria’s army began its offensive to reach the city in earnest last month, and has advanced on multiple fronts, including from the neighboring Raqa province to the west and central Homs province to the south.

It has been supported by Russia’s military, which began an intervention in support of the government in 2015.

The Syrian army’s breaking of the years-long siege of Deir Ezzor city is a “very important strategic victory,” the Kremlin said on Tuesday.

“Commander-in-chief Vladimir Putin has congratulated the Russian military command (in Syria) as well as the command of the Syrian government troops with this very important strategic victory over the terrorists with the aim of freeing Syria from ISIL,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.

Earlier Tuesday a Russian warship in the Mediterranean fired cruise missiles at IS fighters near the town of Al-Shula to aid the Syrian army, the Russian defense ministry said.

“As a result of these strikes there was damage to the infrastructure, underground communications, weapon stockpiles of the terrorists, and this allowed the armed contingents of government forces… to rapidly advance, break through IS defenses and unblock the city (of Deir Ezzor),” Peskov said.

Putin has also “sent a telegram to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad” praising the victory, he added.

More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests which were violently suppressed, leading the country into a vicious and complex civil war.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=84687.

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2017-08-25

LONDON – At least 34 Syrian soldiers and allied fighters have been killed in an Islamic State counterattack in the east of Raqa province, rolling back regime gains, a monitor said Friday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the jihadist group had recaptured large swathes of territory from government forces in the fighting on Thursday.

Syria’s army is seeking to advance through Raqa province to reach neighboring Deir Ezzor, where jihadists have besieged government forces and civilians in the provincial capital since 2015.

Earlier this month, government troops and allied fighters arrived at the outskirts of Madan, the last IS-held town in the eastern Raqa province countryside before Deir Ezzor.

But in Thursday’s counterattack, IS “made major progress and… expanded the area under its control along the southern bank of the Euphrates,” the Observatory said.

“IS has managed to push regime forces back 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the western outskirts of Madan,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

The Syria army operation in the area, backed by air support from ally Russia, is separate from the battle for provincial capital Raqa city.

The effort to oust IS from the city, once the jihadist group’s Syrian stronghold, is being led by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.

The SDF has captured just under 60 percent of Raqa city since it entered in June after months of fighting to encircle it.

More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=84537.

March 03, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s military announced on Thursday it has fully recaptured the historic town of Palmyra from the Islamic State group as the militants’ defenses crumbled and IS fighters fled in the face of artillery fire and intense Russia-backed airstrikes.

The development marks the third time that the town — famed for its priceless Roman ruins and archaeological treasures IS had sought to destroy — has changed hands in one year. It was also the second blow for the Islamic State group in Syria in a week, after Turkish backed opposition fighters seized the Syrian town of al-Bab from the militants on Feb. 23, following a grueling three month battle. In neighboring Iraq, the Sunni extremist group is fighting for survival in its last urban bastion in the western part of the city of Mosul.

For the Syrian government, the news was a welcome development against the backdrop of peace talks underway with the opposition in Switzerland. “You are all invited to visit the historic city of Palmyra and witness its beauty, now that it has been liberated,” the Damascus envoy to the U.N.-mediated talks, Bashar al-Ja’afari, told reporters in Geneva.

“Of course, counterterrorism operations will continue until the last inch of our territory is liberated from the hands of these foreign terrorist organizations, which are wreaking havoc in our country,” he added.

The Damascus military statement said troops gained full control of the desert town in central Syria following a series of military operations carried out with the help of Russian air cover and in cooperation with “allied and friendly troops” — government shorthand for members of Lebanese militant Hezbollah group who are fighting along Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.

IS defenses around Palmyra had begun to erode on Sunday, with government troops reaching the town’s outskirts on Tuesday. The state SANA news agency reported earlier that government troops had entered the town’s archaeological site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, around mid-day, then the town itself, as IS militants fled the area.

This is the Syrian government’s second campaign to retake Palmyra. It seized the town from Islamic State militants last March only to lose it again 10 months later. Before the civil war gripped Syria in 2011, Palmyra was a top tourist attraction, drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year.

The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, had said earlier that Russian President Vladimir Putin was informed by his defense minister that Syrian troops had gained control of Palmyra, with support from Russian warplanes.

The Syrian government’s push has relied on ground support from Hezbollah and Russian air cover, according to Hezbollah’s media outlets. Archeologists have decried what they say is extensive damage to its ruins.

Drone footage released by Russia’s Defense Ministry earlier this month showed new damage to the facade of Palmyra’s Roman-era theater and the adjoining Tetrapylon — a set of four monuments with four columns each at the center of the colonnaded road leading to the theater.

A 2014 report by a U.N. research agency disclosed satellite evidence of looting while the ruins were under Syrian military control. Opposition factions have also admitted to looting the antiquities for funds.

IS militants have twice used the town’s Roman theater as a stage for mass killings, most recently in January, when they shot and beheaded a number of captives they said had tried to escape their December advance. Other IS killings were said to have taken place in the courtyard of the Palmyra museum and in a former Russian base in the town.

The developments in Palmyra came against the backdrop of the talks in Geneva, which have been without any tangible breakthroughs so far. Diplomats and negotiators have set their sights on modest achievements in the latest round, after a week of discussions centering on setting an agenda for future talks.

On Thursday, U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura held another round of meetings with both the government delegation and opposition groups. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told reporters Wednesday that “the parties have agreed to … discuss all issues in a parallel way, on several tracks.”

After a Damascus request, the issue of terrorism is also on the table, he had said. Russia is a key sponsor of Assad’s government. A top Syrian opposition negotiator, Nasr al-Hariri, said the talks would likely culminate in a closing ceremony on Friday and the parties may be back in Geneva for further discussions in a few weeks.

Setting the agenda and strategy to guide discussions has proven difficult as the main conflicting parties dig in their heels over form and semantics. In Turkey, the country’s foreign minister said that with the completion of an operation to retake the IS-held town of al-Bab in northern Syria, Turkish troops will head to the Syrian town of Manbij next, to oust U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces that Ankara views as terrorists and a threat to Turkey.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Thursday that Turkey would not shy away from attacking the Kurdish group that dominates the Syria Democratic Forces, which captured Manbij last year after weeks of deadly fighting with IS.

He renewed calls for the new U.S. administration not to support the Kurdish forces. Cavusoglu stressed that an operation to take Manbij had not started yet, but acknowledged that skirmishes between Turkish-backed forces and the Kurdish fighters may have occurred.

That front line in northern Syria was further complicated by a concurrent announcement by the Syrian Kurdish side on Thursday that they had agreed with Russia to withdraw from some of the territory between al-Bab and Manbij, to make room for a buffer.

The Manbij Military Council, part of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said that under the deal, they will withdraw from a front line with rival Turkish-backed forces near the Euphrates River. This will allow Syrian government forces to create a buffer between them.

However, Cavusoglu denied any such agreement was reached. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government. The Turkish and Syrian authorities have long regarded each other with thinly-veiled hostility.

Soguel reported from Geneva. Associated Press writers Philip Issa in Beirut, Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

2017-03-01

PALMYRA – Syrian government forces backed by Russian soldiers advanced Wednesday to the outskirts of ancient Palmyra after battles with the Islamic State group, a monitor and a military source said.

“Regime forces and Russian troops are about one kilometer from the city,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

After seizing a string of hilltops overlooking Palmyra, the troops had “the western half of the city” within firing range, Abdel Rahman added.

“They are close to capturing the citadel. IS withdrew from it, but they may have left suicide bombers inside,” he warned.

Supported by Russian air strikes and ground troops, Syrian government forces have been battling for weeks through the desert in the central province of Homs to reach Palmyra.

IS jihadists first seized Palmyra in May 2015 and began to systematically destroy the city’s monuments and temples, while also looting its many archaeological treasures.

They were driven out in March 2016 but recaptured the town last December.

Syrian state media confirmed Wednesday that government forces were now in control of key territory near the city.

“Seizing control of the Mount Hilal and other hilltops overlooking Palmyra is an important step towards the collapse of the terrorist groups in the city,” state news agency SANA reported.

A senior military source in Damascus told said on Wednesday that the army had also reached a strategic crossroads leading into Palmyra.

“This crossroads is the key to entering the city,” the source told said.

“Our forces have not yet taken the citadel, but the city is within firing range,” he added.

IS has ravaged the city’s celebrated heritage, blowing up funerary towers and carrying out mass executions in the city’s Roman theater.

Last month, IS destroyed Palmyra’s tetrapylon monument, while satellite images showed damage to the theater’s facade.

The new destruction was condemned by the United Nations as a “war crime.”

On Wednesday, two funeral busts damaged by IS after it first captured Palmyra were brought back to Syria after being restored in Italy.

2017-02-23

AL-BAB – Turkish-backed Syrian rebels said Thursday they had fully captured the town of Al-Bab from the Islamic State group, marking a key defeat for the jihadists after weeks of heavy fighting.

As Ankara said its allies now had “near complete control”, the rebel announcement came on the opening day of peace talks between the Syrian opposition and regime in Geneva.

Al-Bab, just 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of the Turkish border, was the last IS stronghold in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo.

“We are announcing Al-Bab completely liberated, and we are now clearing mines from the residential neighborhoods,” said Ahmad Othman, a rebel commander.

“After hours of fighting, we chased out the last remaining IS rank and file that were collapsing after the fierce shelling of their positions,” he added.

Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik said rebels had “near complete control” of Al-Bab.

“When the search and combing operations are over, we will be able to say that Al-Bab has been completely cleared of Daesh (IS) elements,” he said, quoted by state-run Anadolu Agency.

Isik reaffirmed that Turkey was now ready to join any operation by international coalition forces to take the Syrian city of Raqa, the extremist group’s de-facto capital.

Anadolu had earlier reported that rebels had surrounded the town to “break” IS’s will but had held off on storming the center “with the aim of preventing civilian casualties”.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, said IS fighters were still present in parts of the town and that rebels were in control of less than half of it.

Rebels launched an offensive to capture Al-Bab last year with the support of Turkish ground troops, artillery and air strikes.

Al-Bab was IS’s last remaining stronghold in Aleppo province, after a US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters seized the town of Manbij in August.

The jihadist group still controls a scattering of smaller villages and towns in the province.

– ‘Tall task’ ahead –

Field commanders from two other rebel factions in the town also claimed the capture of Al-Bab.

“Yesterday (Wednesday), we captured the city center, which was IS’s security zone… The jihadists collapsed, and this morning around 6 am (0400 GMT) we completed the operation,” said Saif Abu Bakr, who heads the Al-Hamza rebel group.

Abu Jaafar, another rebel field commander, said he expected clearing up operations would be wrapped up within hours.

“Dozens of IS fighters were killed and we evacuated more than 50 families from inside Al-Bab,” Abu Jaafar said.

Turkey sent troops into Syria in August last year in an operation it said targeted not only IS but also US-backed Kurdish fighters whom it regards as terrorists.

The battle for Al-Bab has been the bloodiest of the campaign with at least 69 Turkish soldiers killed there.

The town was also seen as a prize by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, who had advanced to just 1.5 kilometers (one mile) from Al-Bab in recent weeks.

“Al-Bab is important, insofar as its taking from IS will deprive the group of a tax base and an area where it was able to congregate and plot attacks against Syrians and the West,” said Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the US-based Atlantic Council.

“For Turkey, the mission, as was defined back in 2016, is now complete: Turkish forces have forced IS from the border and cut the overland route between the two Kurdish cantons” in northern Syria, he said.

Syria’s Kurds have managed autonomous administrations in swathes of the country’s north since 2012, and Al-Bab falls between the “cantons” of Kobane and Afrin.

“However, Turkey will now have to grapple with the questions of prolonged occupation of a foreign country and help to oversee the transition to civilian rule, a tall task for any foreign military,” Stein added.

More than 310,000 people have been killed since Syria’s conflict broke out in March 2011 with protests against Assad that spiralled into all-out war.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=81645.

2017-01-18

DEIR EZZOR – As the Islamic State group closes in on Syria’s Deir Ezzor, residents said they are terrified of falling victim to the mass killings for which the jihadists have become infamous.

Besieged by IS since early 2015, the government-held third of Deir Ezzor city is home to an estimated 100,000 people.

Since Saturday, IS has steadily advanced in a fresh assault on the city, sparking fears among residents of widespread atrocities.

“Civilians in the city are terrified and anxious, afraid that IS will enter the city since they accuse us of being ‘regime thugs’,” said Abu Nour, 51.

He spoke by phone from inside the city, roughly one kilometer (less than one mile) from approaching IS forces.

Deir Ezzor sits in the oil-rich eastern province of the same name, most of which is controlled by IS.

Abu Nour said that residents were haunted by previous abductions and mass executions carried out by IS in the broader province.

“The way they killed them is stuck in people’s minds here,” he said.

IS is notorious for using particularly gruesome methods to kill military rivals and civilians alike, including beheading, lighting them on fire, or launching rockets at them from just meters (feet) away.

As the group advanced on ancient city Palmyra in 2015, it killed dozens of civilians, accusing them of being regime loyalists, then staged mass executions of government troops in the city’s theater.

According to one activist group, IS has already begun executing Syrian soldiers it took captive during the clashes in Deir Ezzor.

IS executed 10 soldiers “by driving over them with tanks”, said Omar Abu Leila, an activist from Deir Ezzor 24, which publishes news on the city.

“If IS seizes regime-held neighborhoods, it could carry out massacres. This is a huge source of concern for us,” he said.

– ‘Hunger will ravage us’ –

In its push for Deir Ezzor, the jihadist group has launched salvos of rockets on the neighborhoods it besieged.

“Shells have rained down on us for five days,” Umm Inas, another resident, said by phone.

“There’s very little movement in the street because people are afraid of these shells, which spare no one,” the 45-year-old said.

She warned the humanitarian situation was getting increasingly dire, after the World Food Program said on Tuesday it could no longer carry out air drops over the city because of the fighting.

“If the situation continues like this, hunger will ravage us. The air drops were our only lifeline,” Umm Inas said.

The WFP has been dropping humanitarian aid into Deir Ezzor since April 2016, and the government-held area is the only place in Syria where the agency has permission for the drops.

In the past, government and Russian warplanes have also delivered desperately needed humanitarian aid to the city via air drops.

A medical source in the city said more than 100 civilians had been wounded in the recent fighting, and some were taken north to the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli.

“Some intractable cases were flown to Qamishli because they need special treatment that isn’t available in Deir Ezzor,” the source said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=80942.

January 17, 2017

Daesh laid siege to a military airport which is under the control of Syrian regime forces in the city of Deir ez-Zor yesterday, as forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad struggle to maintain any effective presence in the eastern Syrian city.

After days of fierce fighting, Daesh fighters managed to cut off all supply routes and divide the territories held by the Assad regime while taking control of important sites in the vicinity of the airbase.

Deir ez-Zor, which is the largest city in the eastern part of Syria,has long been under siege by Daesh.

However, the Syrian army forces were in control of certain neighborhoods, including the city’s airport. For long periods residents of Deir ez-Zor and the servicemen needed air drops for food and essential supplies.

The military airbase has been described as a “small island” surrounded by the territories under Daesh control. Since opposition forces took control of the region in 2014, militants made countless attempts to take control and besiege the airbase but had failed to take full control.

Safa news agency reported a military official who commented on the latest siege of the military airport saying that “this attack was the fiercest onslaught initiated by [Daesh] on the airport and the region.”

Daesh has now successfully cut through the only land supply route between the base and Deir ez-Zor.

If Daesh manages to control the airbase and Deir ez-Zor,it will be seen as a bigger blow to the regime than its defeat in Palmyra which, unlike Deir ez-Zor did not have an airbase with Syrian forces to defend it.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170117-daesh-lays-siege-to-syria-regime-airbase-in-deir-ez-zor/.

January 14, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Islamic State militants launched their biggest assault in a year on government-held areas of the contested city of Deir el-Zour Saturday, attacking from several fronts and triggering intense fighting in the eastern region bordering Iraq, the Syrian government and opposition activists said.

Syrian state TV said three people were killed and nine were wounded in IS rocket attacks on several neighborhoods of the city. Intense fighting broke out between Syrian troops and the extremist group’s fighters both inside the city and around the vicinity of a nearby military airport controlled by government forces. The militants had launched their multi-pronged attack starting from the area of Baghaliyeh near the northwestern tip of the city. Deir el-Zour carries strategic significance for IS as it links the group’s Iraq territory to its de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria.

Loud explosions that shook the city were reported. Activists said Syrian warplanes were taking part in the battles. The Deir Ezzor 24 news network reported ongoing clashes since the morning near Deir el-Zour military airport and other fronts in the city and said Syrian warplanes targeted Baghaliyeh and Ayash areas and the vicinity of an army base known as Brigade 137 west of the city.

The extremist group, which controls most of Deir el-Zour province, has kept the provincial capital under siege since 2014. Government forces have withstood the encirclement thanks to air-dropped humanitarian assistance and weapons and ammunition flown into the airport. Remaining residents have reported malnourishment and starvation amid severe shortages of food, water and fuel.

IS has tried to capture the government-held neighborhoods of Deir el-Zour and the city’s suburbs over the past months without much success. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Saturday’s offensive was the most intense since mid-January 2016, when the group killed dozens of people, most of them pro-government militiamen, in wide-scale attacks on the city that saw the group make significant advances. Most of those casualties took place in Baghaliyeh and the killings — many people were shot dead or beheaded — were some of the worst carried out by the extremist group.

The Observatory said the group has recently brought in reinforcements, including large amounts of ammunition and fuel, in preparation for the battle. It said at least 32 people were killed in Saturday’s fighting, including 12 soldiers and allied militiamen and 20 IS fighters.

The Islamic State group, which in 2014 seized large parts of Iraq and Syria and established a so-called Islamic “caliphate” straddling both sides of the border, is under intense pressure in both countries where it has lost significant territory in recent months.

Meanwhile in northern Syria, opposition activists reported a series of government airstrikes on Idlib province over the past 24 hours, including an attack that killed at least 11, mostly civilians, in Maaret Misrin.

In Damascus, the government maintained its offensive to uproot rebels in control of a nearby valley that provides the capital with the majority of its water supply, further threatening a fragile cease-fire that appeared to be fraying.

State-run news agency SANA reported later Saturday that “terrorists” had assassinated Ahmad al-Ghadban, who was appointed by the government to coordinate with rebels in the opposition-held Barada Valley to stop the fighting and allow maintenance workers to fix the water facility there.

For days negotiations have stalled and failed to restore the water flow to the capital — restricted since Dec. 22 — and to end the government offensive to uproot the rebels in the valley. The U.N. says the capital has suffered a water shortage that has affected nearly 5.5 million residents. The fighting has trapped nearly 100,000 residents of the opposition-held valley.

The cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey, who support opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, went into effect on Dec. 30. It excludes extremist groups such as the Islamic State group.

Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus contributed to this report.

December 12, 2016

Five people have been killed and many others wounded following intense Russian airstrikes against Daesh in Palmyra, in an attempt to shore up the crumbling Assad regime forces who have completely withdrawn and surrendered the city to the militant group.

Not only have Daesh successfully managed to force the Assad regime’s greatly weakened army to withdraw from Palmyra, but they have had enough time to reinforce their newly regained positions in the ancient city, killing well over 100 of Syrian soldiers and Shia militia fighters.

Daesh announced that it had captured 30 Russian-made tanks as well as large quantities of materiel, including Grad rocket launchers with ammunition, while killing at least 120 men loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad, Al Jazeera reported.

The Governor of Homs province, Talal Al-Burazi, had previously admitted that Palmyra, known as Tadmur in Arabic, was lost to Daesh after the Assad regime’s forces completely withdrew in the face of the onslaught over the weekend.

Daesh had held Palmyra until it lost the city to a Russian-backed Assad regime offensive. Following its recapture in March this year, the Assad regime and its Russian backers held concerts and celebrated to large public fanfare.

The loss of Palmyra has been seen as an enormous embarrassment to both Moscow and Damascus, with a nervous Kremlin attempting to present its failure to protect Palmyra as an international problem.

“The threat of losing Palmyra is a loss for all civilized humankind, not just for Russia,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said today.

The Kremlin also added that the loss of Palmyra shows how serious the Daesh threat remains. This despite many statements from Moscow making claims that its intervention had stunted “terrorism” in Syria.

Russia, Iran and Syria refer to any anti-Assad regime factions as “terrorists”, irrespective of whether they have anything to do with terrorism or not.

Analysts also suggest that the loss of Palmyra is down to the Assad regime and its backers focusing all of their efforts on crushing what remains of pro-democracy opposition factions in Aleppo, leaving their rear unprotected and allowing Daesh to expand rather than shrink, as was Russia’s stated objective when it launched its military intervention.

Russia intervened on behalf of the Iran-backed Assad regime over a year ago and reversed Al-Assad’s fortunes over the past year. Eastern Aleppo, one of the Syrian opposition’s last strongholds, is on the cusp of falling with Moscow claiming 93% of the Syrian city is now in regime hands.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20161212-russia-syria-fail-to-dislodge-daesh-from-palmyra/.

By Delil Souleiman with Ahmad Mousa in Hamam al-Alil, Iraq

Ain Issa, Syria (AFP)

Nov 8, 2016

A US-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance pushed closer to Raqa in Syria while Iraqi forces seized a key town near Mosul as offensives progressed against the two Islamic State group strongholds.

After announcing the launch of the long-awaited assault on Raqa on Sunday, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance said it had moved south towards the city despite fierce jihadist resistance.

South of Mosul, Iraqi forces retook Hamam al-Alil from IS, a key objective in their three-week advance on the city.

Iraqi forces said Monday they found a mass grave in the area containing around 100 decapitated bodies.

Raqa and Mosul are the last major cities in Syria and Iraq under the jihadists’ control.

Their capture would deal a huge blow to the self-styled “caliphate” IS declared in mid-2014.

The US-led coalition that launched operations against IS two years ago is providing crucial backing to the offensives, with air strikes and special forces advisers on the ground.

SDF spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed told AFP that the alliance’s forces had advanced on two fronts towards Raqa amid heavy fighting.

SDF fighters had pushed at least 10 kilometers (six miles) south towards the city from the towns of Ain Issa and Suluk, she said.

In both cases the SDF was still some distance from Raqa — on the Ain Issa front at least 30 kilometers (20 miles) away.

“The offensive is going according to plan,” said Ahmed, adding that the SDF had captured at least 10 villages.

– ‘Fight will not be easy’ –

An SDF commander said IS was fighting back with its favorite tactic of sending suicide bombers in explosives-packed vehicles against advancing forces.

“IS is sending car bombers but coalition planes and our anti-tank weapons are limiting their effectiveness,” the commander said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

After taking Abu Ilaj north of Raqa, SDF fighters dug trenches and piled sandbags at the entrance to the village.

“In every area that we advance we are digging trenches with tractors and bulldozers to protect the front line, to prevent the jihadists from getting in and to stop car bombs,” one fighter said.

The SDF says some 30,000 of its fighters are taking part in operation “Wrath of the Euphrates”, which aims to surround and isolate IS inside Raqa before making an assault on the city itself.

Officials have warned that the battle is likely to be long and difficult.

“As in Mosul, the fight will not be easy and there is hard work ahead,” US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said.

Driving IS from both cities has been the endgame since the US-led coalition launched air strikes against it in 2014, shortly after the jihadists seized swathes of Syria and Iraq.

Some 50 US military advisers are involved in the Raqa operation, particularly to guide air strikes, according to an SDF source.

Near Mosul, forces established full control over Hamam al-Alil, the last town of note on the way to the city from the south, AFP reporters said.

It lies on the west bank of the Tigris river, about 15 kilometers (nine miles) southeast of the edge of Mosul.

Life quickly resumed in Hamam al-Alil, with some residents reopening shops and others bathing in the town’s sulfur springs.

– Mass grave found –

However, police said they found a mass grave Monday at an agricultural collage west of Hamam al-Alil.

The Joint Operations Command said “Iraqi forces found… 100 bodies of citizens with their heads cut off”.

The US is using Apache helicopters in the battle to retake the city, the Pentagon said late Monday, directing attacks at explosive-packed vehicles.

Fighting also continued east of Mosul, with Kurdish forces advancing into the town of Bashiqa and the elite Counter Terrorism Service battling IS in the city’s suburbs.

“Up to seven neighborhoods are under the control of counter-terrorism forces, and they are now completely securing them and clearing them of pockets of terrorists,” CTS spokesman Sabah al-Noman told AFP.

A peshmerga statement said its forces were in Bashiqa and had “begun house-to-house clearances”.

The Mosul offensive has advanced faster than expected, but the battle for Raqa is more complicated.

Unlike in Iraq where the coalition has a state-controlled ally in federal forces, in Syria its ground partner is comprised of local militias, including some rebel groups that have battled President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Aid groups have voiced concerns for civilians trapped in both Mosul and Raqa, warning they may be used as human shields.

More than 34,000 people have been displaced since the Mosul operation began on October 17, the International Organization for Migration said.

More than a million people are believed to be in Mosul.

Raqa had a population of some 240,000 before 2011 but more than 80,000 people have since fled there from other parts of Syria.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/US-backed_forces_push_closer_to_IS_capital_Raqa_999.html.