Tag Archive: Gold Eagle Forces in the Levant


2017-11-19

DEIR EZZOR – The Syrian army and loyalist militiamen Sunday retook full control of Albu Kamal from the Islamic State group, a military source said, ousting the jihadists from their last urban stronghold in Syria.

Albu Kamal has changed hands several times, with government forces announcing the capture of the town near the Iraqi border earlier this month but losing it to a blistering IS counter-attack a week ago.

“Syrian troops and allied forces took full control of Albu Kamal, and are removing mines and explosives left by IS,” the military source in Deir Ezzor said on Sunday.

“IS put up fierce resistance and tried to use explosives and suicide bombers, but besieging the city allowed the army to clinch the offensive and take full control of the city,” the source added.

State news agency SANA also reported the advance in Albu Kamal, saying the “Syrian army and its allies eliminated the last Daesh (IS) terrorist pocket in the town.”

A string of territorial defeats across northern and eastern Syria had left Albu Kamal as the last significant Syrian town held by IS.

Syria’s army announced on November 9 it had ousted IS from the town, but the jihadists launched a lightning offensive and retook it.

A week later, the army and allied Iraqi, Lebanese, and Iranian fighters broke back into Albu Kamal and steadily advanced through the town.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed on Sunday that Syrian troops and their allies had captured Albu Kamal.

“IS fighters withdrew from the city towards the Euphrates River,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

“There is no more fighting in the town, but there are clashes around Albu Kamal,” he said.

The monitor said more than 80 fighters were killed in the three days of ferocious push to retake the town, including 31 pro-regime forces and at least 50 IS jihadists.

IS seized large areas of both Syria and neighboring Iraq in a lightning 2014 campaign, but this year has lost much of the territory it once held.

The loss of Albu Kamal caps the group’s reversion to an underground guerrilla organisation with no urban base.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=86013.

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2017-11-03

DAMASCUS – Syria’s army has seized Deir Ezzor from the Islamic State group, state media said Friday, driving the jihadists from the last major city where they were present.

“The army announces full control of Deir Ezzor city,” state television said in a breaking news alert, citing sources on the ground.

State news agency SANA also reported that Deir Ezzor had been “fully liberated.”

State television reported that engineering units from the army were combing captured neighborhoods to defuse mines and other explosives.

On Thursday, a reporter contributing to AFP saw widespread destruction in the city, with whole buildings hit by air strikes or artillery fire crumpled into themselves and streets strewn with rubble.

Trenches dug by IS fighters to defend their positions were still visible as government minesweepers worked.

Syrian troops and allied fighters backed by Russian air power have been battling inside the eastern city since September, when they broke an IS siege of nearly three years on government-held districts.

In recent days they have advanced, capturing a string of neighborhoods and encircling remaining IS fighters.

The city is the provincial capital of surrounding Deir Ezzor province, an oil-rich region that sits on the county’s eastern border with Iraq.

The province was once largely held by IS, though parts of Deir Ezzor city stayed under government control throughout the jihadist group’s reign.

IS is now facing twin assaults in the province, from the army as well as US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters.

The jihadist group has lost much of the territory it once held in the province. Its most important remaining position is the town of Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border.

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://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85744.

October 18, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed Syrian forces celebrated in the devastated streets of Raqqa on Tuesday after gaining control of the northern city that once was the heart of the Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate, dealing a major defeat to the extremist group that has seen its territory shrink ever smaller since summer.

Militants took over the vibrant metropolis on the Euphrates River in 2014, transforming it into the epicenter of their brutal rule, where opponents were beheaded and terror plots hatched. It took thousands of bombs dropped by the U.S.-led coalition and more than four months of grueling house-to-house battles for the Syrian Democratic Forces to recapture Raqqa, marking a new chapter in the fight against the group whose once vast territory has been reduced to a handful of towns in Syria and Iraq.

“Liberating Raqqa is a triumph for humanity, especially women,” who suffered the most under IS, said Ilham Ahmed, a senior member of the SDF political wing. “It is a salvation for the will to live an honorable life. It is a defeat to the forces of darkness,” said Ahmed, speaking to The Associated Press from Ein Issa, just north of Raqqa.

Fighters from the SDF celebrated by chanting and honking their horns as they spun doughnuts with their Humvees and armored personnel carriers, and hoisting yellow SDF flags around Naim, or Paradise Square.

The infamous square was the site of public beheadings and other killings by the militants. Bodies and severed heads would be displayed there for days, mounted on posts and labeled with their alleged crimes, according to residents who later dubbed it “Hell Square.”

Crumbled and flattened buildings stood behind the fighters as they drove around the square, a sign of the massive destruction the city has suffered since the militants took over. It was in Naim Square that the extremists paraded tanks and military hardware in 2014 in a chilling show of force that foretold what would come.

SDF commanders later visited Raqqa’s sports stadium, which IS had turned into a notorious prison. Dozens of militants who refused to surrender made their last stand earlier Tuesday holed up inside. “Immortal martyrs!” chanted the men and women in SDF uniforms, saluting their comrades who died battling for the city. According to the coalition, about 1,100 SDF forces have been killed fighting IS in Raqqa and Deir el-Zour.

“Military operations in Raqqa have ceased and we are now combing the city for sleeper cells and cleaning it from land mines,” Brig. Gen. Talal Sillo told the AP earlier in the day. A formal declaration that Raqqa has fallen would be made soon, once troops finish their clearing operations, Sillo said.

Col. Ryan Dillon, the Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, was more cautious, saying only that “more than 90 percent” of Raqqa had been cleared. He estimated about 100 IS militants were still in the city and said he expects the SDF to encounter “pockets of resistance” during the clearing operations.

The battle of Raqqa has killed more than 1,000 civilians, many of them in coalition airstrikes in recent months, and displaced tens of thousands of people who face the prospect of returning to ruined homes. The coalition and residents who managed to escape accused the militants of using civilians as human shields and tried to stop them from leaving the city.

In a reminder of the humanitarian catastrophe unleashed by the fighting, the international charity group Save the Children said that camps housing tens of thousands of people who fled Raqqa are “bursting at the seams.”

It said about 270,000 people from Raqqa are still in critical need of aid. With the high level of destruction reported in and around Raqqa, most families have nowhere to go and are likely to be in camps for months or years. The World Food Program said it was ready to send teams as soon as the area was secure enough.

Ahmed, the SDF official, said the hardest part will be administering and rebuilding Raqqa. The group has appointed a civilian administration of locals to rebuild the city, but larger questions loom. The SDF is a multi-ethnic force, but its Kurdish leadership harbors ambitions of autonomous rule over a Kurdish region in Syria that now includes the Arab-majority Raqqa, leading to concerns of a possible backlash among the city’s Sunni Arab population.

Brett McGurk, the top U.S. presidential envoy to the anti-IS coalition, arrived in northern Syria and met Tuesday with members of the Raqqa Civil Council and members of the reconstruction committee. He also met tribal leaders and urged them to work closely with the SDF, preventing the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad from using any divisions between them, according to the Furat FM, an activist-run news agency.

An immediate challenge was clearing Raqqa of thousands of land mines and booby traps that have killed returning civilians and senior SDF commanders in recent days. One of those killed Monday was the head of the internal security force affiliated with the SDF.

Another challenge for the troops is searching the tunnels that were dug by the militants around the city, Dillon said. “This will take some time, to say that the city is completely clear,” he told AP. “We still suspect that there are still (IS) fighters that are within the city in small pockets.”

The loss of Raqqa will deprive the militants of a major hub for recruitment and planning, Dillon said, because the city attracted hundreds of foreign fighters and was a place where attacks in the Middle East and Europe were planned. The militants remain active in Syria, he said, farther south around the eastern province of Deir el-Zour.

In recent months, the Islamic State has steadily lost ground in Iraq and Syria, including Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul. It has also lost major territory to Syrian government forces who have been marching against the group in a simultaneous but separate offensive, mainly in Deir el-Zour province.

Syria’s state news agency said government forces and their Russian and Iranian-backed allies captured the Deir el-Zour villages of Mouhassan, Bouomar and Bouleil that were once extremist strongholds. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported that government forces now control more than 90 percent of the city of Deir el-Zour, where a major offensive is underway to capture remaining IS-held neighborhoods.

The battle for Raqqa began in June and the SDF met with stiff resistance from the militants. It began its final assault on Sunday after nearly 300 IS fighters surrendered. Naim Square was captured Monday.

The force seized the hospital Tuesday, taking down the last black IS flag, according to the Kurdish-run Hawar news agency. A video from Hawar showed the clashes around the hospital, which appeared riddled with bullets and partly blackened from a fire.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut and National Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

October 17, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led forces battling the Islamic State group in Syria on Tuesday captured the city hospital in Raqqa, leaving IS militants holed up at the local stadium, their last stand in the fight over what was once the extremists’ de facto capital.

The hospital was one of IS last holdouts in Raqqa and had doubled as a hospital and an IS command center. Its capture left IS militants cornered in and around the notorious municipal stadium. Musafa Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, said 22 IS militants were killed in the advance on the hospital. The fighting was still underway with militants who had refused to surrender, he said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that a major push by the SDF on the municipal stadium was underway. Clashes are ongoing around the stadium with “a small group” of militants, said a senior Kurdish commander. “We hope it won’t take long. Our aim is to clear the stadium also today.”

He said there is no sign of civilians in the stadium or around it but hat his troops are cautious because they expect IS has laid mines in the fortified stadium building. The commander spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

The stadium served as an arms depot, a security headquarters and one of the Islamic State militants’ largest jails in their self-styled caliphate. The U.S.-led coalition said it had not carried out any airstrikes in or around Raqqa for 24 hours, starting from noon Sunday.

The Kurdish-run Hawar news agency said with the capture of the hospital, the last black IS flag raised in the city had been taken down. On Monday, the SDF captured Raqqa’s infamous public square where Islamic State militants used to perform brutal executions and beheadings.

Paradise Square became synonymous with the group’s reign of terror. After declaring their self-styled caliphate in 2014, the militants used Raqqa’s central city square to carry out public beheadings and killings, forcing the residents to watch after summoning them with loudspeakers. Bodies and severed heads would linger there for days, mounted on posts. Residents described how the bodies of those executed would be labelled, each with his or her perceived crime, for the public to see.

The square previously known for its famous ice cream shop was quickly renamed from Paradise to Hell Square, Jahim in Arabic. The battle for Raqqa began in June and has dragged for weeks as the SDF fighters faced stiff resistance from the militants.

The fall of the city would be a huge blow to IS, which has steadily been losing territory in Iraq and Syria. In the campaign, the city suffered major devastation, leaving most of its buildings leveled and in ruins.

October 13, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Some 100 fighters from the Islamic State group handed themselves over to U.S.-backed fighters in the northern city of Raqqa Friday as fighting continued with remaining gunmen in a pocket inside the city.

Omar Alloush of the Raqqa Civilian Council did not give details how the 100 fighters surrendered but said fighting is still ongoing in parts of the city that was once the de facto capital of IS. U.S.-backed fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces have been on the offensive in Raqqa since early June and have so far captured more than 80 percent of the city under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

IS still controls the city’s stadium that is believed to be a jail run by the extremists, as well as the National Hospital and a small part of northern Raqqa. “There are still fighters but the area they control is getting smaller,” said Mohammed Khedher of Sound and Picture Organization, which tracks atrocities by IS in Iraq and Syria.

Earlier Friday, scores of civilians including women and children fled the last few remaining neighborhoods held by the IS in Raqqa, ahead of an anticipated final push by U.S.-backed fighters seeking to retake the city.

A new video that emerged Friday shows desperate, terrified residents emerging from destroyed districts, some of them collapsing on the ground in exhaustion as they arrive. They seemed to be taking advantage of a slowdown in the fighting and airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition amid efforts to ensure the safe evacuation of an estimated 4,000 civilians who remain trapped in the city.

The coalition has said that IS militants are holding some civilians to use as human shields, preventing them from escaping as the fight enters its final stages. The city, on the banks of the Euphrates River, has been badly damaged by the fighting, and activists have reported that over 1,000 civilians have been killed there since June.

The video released by the Turkey-based Kurdish Mezopotamya Medya on Friday showed clearly petrified residents running toward safety, some clutching babies or wounded people. “This is my husband, we are civilians!” one woman cried, fearing that fighters from the U.S.-backed force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces would take him away. Some of the arriving men were searched before being allowed in while others kissed the ground in relief.

“God is stronger than them (IS),” shouted another woman, clutching what appeared to be a large Quran in her hand. Another elderly man hobbled out on crutches, begging for water. After drinking from a bottle handed to him, he collapsed on the ground in exhaustion.

Gunfire could be heard in the background. SDF fighters have been on the offensive in Raqqa since June 5 and have so far captured more than 80 percent of the city that was the de facto capital of IS. IS still controls the city’s stadium believed to be a jail run by the extremists, as well as the National Hospital and a small area north of Raqqa.

OCT. 2, 2017

AMMAN: In a remote, destitute displacement camp along Syria’s southeastern border with Jordan, thousands of residents were finalizing preparations last week to return home to central Homs province, fed up after years of life in the desert.

The departing residents were headed back home from the Rukban camp to Qaryatayn, a small town 160km to the northwest, nestled deep within regime territory in rural Homs province.

Some people in the camp had already sent their spouses and children back to Qaryatayn in recent weeks as living conditions in Rukban deteriorated. Someday, they planned to rejoin their loved ones in the relative safety of regime-held central Homs.

But late Friday night, Islamic State forces reportedly launched a surprise offensive and captured Qaryatayn from the Syrian regime. Virtually all communications from the town went down. On Sunday, IS released a statement online claiming their forces held “full control” over the town. Syrian state media did not report the attack.

For residents of Rukban who fled IS control of Qaryatayn two years ago, the recapture of the city came as “a shock.”

“Nobody was expecting IS to return,” Abu Ward, a 25-year-old Rukban resident who fled Qaryatayn with his family in 2015, told Syria Direct on Monday. “To be honest, it was a shock—I didn’t believe the news at first.”

Once a mixed town of Syrian Muslims and Christians reliant on agriculture and government jobs in Damascus, Qaryatayn first fell to the Islamic State in 2015. At the time, thousands of its roughly 14,000 residents fled south through Syria’s eastern desert to safety in Rukban.

Syrian regime forces recaptured Qaryatayn in 2016, but many residents who had already fled did not return for fear of arrest or forced military conscription at the hands of the authorities.

If confirmed, the capture of Qaryatayn is a rare victory for IS as the group’s forces suffer major losses in eastern Syria’s Raqqa and Deir e-Zor provinces, amid separate campaigns by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the regime to eradicate the group from its remaining territory.

The surprise advance also comes amid clashes between regime and IS forces 160 kilometers northeast of Qaryatayn in Sukhnah, a key waystation for regime forces on the eastern Deir e-Zor front.

‘No communication’

Today, Qaryatayn natives still in Rukban tell Syria Direct they have “no communication” with their family members back home, as the reported IS hold over the city reaches its third day. For them, the town is a virtual black hole.

The Qaryatayn Media Center, a Facebook news page based outside of the town, posted online that it was able to contact reporters inside on Monday. According to the page, clashes between regime forces and IS continue in the town’s south as civilians shelter inside. “Hundreds” of residents were arrested and later released by IS following the capture of the town, QMC reported.

Among Rukban residents with family now trapped back home in Qaryatayn is Abu Saleem, a 33-year-old father of four. He sent his wife and children home to Qaryatayn last month, after he felt life had returned to normal in the regime-held town. Abu Saleem stayed behind in Rukban because he feared arrest and conscription by regime forces.

Abu Saleem’s wife and children were among hundreds of Rukban residents who returned to Qaryatayn since August, after key supply routes to the desert camp were cut off by battles in the surrounding desert.

From his location in Rukban, Abu Saleem kept in touch with his family daily via voice messages sent online. “[My wife] told me she was doing fine, that the city was safe,” he told Syria Direct on Monday. “She had just registered the kids in school.”

“But on Friday evening, she sent me a voice message. There was gunfire, and she said she couldn’t go outside the house, that IS had returned to the city. My children were crying nearby.”

Abu Saleem has heard nothing from his wife and children since Friday, he says, after communication with them “was cut off.”

“I’m afraid for my family,” he said from Rukban. “I’m afraid IS could commit massacres, or that regime warplanes could bomb the city, which could lead—God forbid—to the death of my family.”

Abu Saleem isn’t alone. Abu Ward, the 25-year-old Rukban resident, also told Syria Direct he had no communication with family members who had recently returned to Qaryatayn.

Abu Ward’s brothers, nieces and elderly parents all left Rukban for their hometown about a month and a half ago, hoping for a more stable life outside of the camp. He kept in touch with his family via landline, he said, “because when IS captured Qaryatayn for the first time, they cut off cell phone coverage.”

But the last time Abu Ward heard anything substantial from his family was Friday evening, during a phone call.

“At 11:30pm, the landline cut off,” he told Syria Direct on Monday. “At the time, they seemed to be doing well—there were no signs of IS. Everything seemed normal.”

He was able to reach his family members in Qaryatayn “briefly” again on Monday, Abu Ward said, “but the line cut out again.”

“I couldn’t figure out how they were doing—just that there is great panic among residents of the town.”

Mohammad Ahmad a-Darbas al-Khalidi, Rukban’s current local council director, estimates some 100 families—hundreds of people—have returned from the camp to Qaryatayn since August. At the time, deteriorating food and medical supplies, as well as series of regime advances eastward along the Syrian-Jordanian border spurred camp residents to flee back home.

“We advised people against returning to Qaryatayn or other areas under regime control,” al-Khalidi told Syria Direct from the camp on Sunday.

Some 300 families were preparing to leave Qaryatayn just before news broke of the IS attack, he said. “They said that they preferred death to living in this camp.”

Today, Rukban resident Abu Saleem says all he feels is regret for sending his wife and young children home to Qaryatayn.

“My feelings are nearly killing me,” he said from inside encampment. “Regret for sending them by themselves, regret that I’m not with them, regret for being the one who made the decision for them to return.”

Source: Syria Direct.

Link: http://syriadirect.org/news/rare-islamic-state-victory-in-rural-homs-splits-displaced-families-apart/.

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.

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.