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US-backed forces launch anti-ISIS offensive in Syria

The operation will also count on support from US-led coalition air strikes as well as from ground-based firing positions

Published: Updated:

Kurdish-led Syrian fighters have launched a new advance on the northern town of Manbij, a key ISIS stronghold, with the aid of US-led airstrikes, the Associated Press reported a spokesman for the fighters and a monitoring group as saying on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, US officials told Reuters that there were thousands of US-backed fighters in Syria, who are launching an offensive to capture Manbij following weeks of quiet preparations.

The operation, which only just started to get underway on Tuesday and could take weeks to complete, aims to choke off ISIS’s access to Syrian territory along the Turkish border that militants have long used as a logistics base for moving foreign fighters back and forth to Europe.

“It’s significant in that it’s their last remaining funnel” to Europe, a US military official said.

A small number of US special operations forces will support the offensive on the ground, acting as advisors and staying some distance back from the front lines, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss military planning.

“They’ll be as close as they need to be for the (Syrian fighters) to complete the operation. But they will not engage in direct combat,” the official said.

The operation will also count on support from US-led coalition air strikes as well as from ground-based firing positions across the border in Turkey.

Perhaps essential for NATO ally Turkey, the operation will be overwhelmingly comprised of Syrian Arabs instead of forces with the Kurdish YPG militia, who will only represent about a fifth or a sixth of the overall force, the officials said.

Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters to be terrorists and has been enraged by US backing for the militia in its battle with ISIS in Syria.

A U.S. fighter, who is fighting alongside with Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), carries his national flag as he stands with SDF fighters in northern province of Raqqa, Syria May 27, 2016. REUTERS
A U.S. fighter, who is fighting alongside with Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), carries his national flag as he stands with SDF fighters in northern province of Raqqa, Syria May 27, 2016. REUTERS

YPG to withdraw

Turkey has been alarmed by advances by Kurdish forces along its border and opposed the idea of YPG fighters taking control of the Manbij pocket. The Kurdish YPG militia already controls an uninterrupted 400 km (250 mile) stretch the border.

The officials told Reuters, however, the YPG will only fight to help clear ISIS from the area around Manbij. Syrian Arab fighters would be the ones to stabilize and secure it once ISIS is gone, according to the operational plans.

“After they take Manbij, the agreement is the YPG will not be staying ... So you’ll have Syrian Arabs occupying traditional Syrian Arab land,” the official said, adding Turkey supported the offensive.

Turkey not contributing

Meanwhile, a Turkish military source said on Wednesday that Turkey is not contributing to the US-backed operation against ISIS in Syria which includes Kurdish fighters near Manbij.

Turkey’s state-run news agency says coalition airstrikes and Turkish artillery fire against ISIS in Syria killed 14 militants.

The operation comes ahead of an eventual push by the US-backed Syrian forces toward the city of Raqqa, the ISIS’s defacto capital in Syria and the prime objective in Syria for US military planners.

The US military official said depriving ISIS of the Manbij pocket would help further isolate the militants and further undermine their ability to funnel supplies to Raqqa.

US President Barack Obama has authorized about 300 US special operations forces to operate on the ground from secret locations inside Syria to help coordinate with local forces to battle ISIS there.

Temporary ceasefire

As Syrian rebels fight ISIS, the Russian Defence Ministry said on Wednesday that a temporary ceasefire, which it called a “regime of calm,” had taken effect from June 1 for 48 hours in the Damascus suburb of Daraya to allow for the distribution of humanitarian aid to civilians.

Syria’s government has been refusing UN efforts to send aid into Daraya and several other areas besieged by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, despite what the United Nations calls a “horrendously critical” food situation.

Daraya, close to a large air base and only a few kilometers (miles) from Assad’s palace, has been besieged and regularly bombed since 2012.

In a short statement, the ministry said it had coordinated the “regime of calm” with the Syrian authorities and with the United States “to secure safe delivery of humanitarian aid to the population. It took effect from midnight,” it said.

The International Syria Support Group (ISSG) of countries backing the peace process, which includes Russia, had set a June 1 deadline for aid to get in by road. Otherwise the United Nations was ready to organize air drops of aid.

“We’ve been told the regime will allow access to Daraya and possibly Mouadimiya,” said a senior Western diplomat.

“Let’s see if it happens as it's no coincidence this came out the day before June 1 when air drops were supposed to have started. This tactic is not new.’

Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. mediator of Syria peace talks, has said improved humanitarian access was one of the things he wanted to see before announcing a date for a new round of talks. But with no let-up in the fighting, he said on May 26 that no talks would be feasible over the next two or three weeks.

Diplomats say opposition negotiators also need to be able to point to some improvement in the humanitarian situation or the cessation of hostilities before they can come back to the negotiating table.