Syrian rebels close in on strategic ISIS-held city

Manbij is located along a route connecting Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital, to the Turkish border

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Syrian rebels advancing on ISIS fighters in the strategic northern city of Manbij have seized more than 40 square miles (100 square kilometers) this week, the US military said Friday.

US Central Command spokesman Colonel Patrick Ryder said that more than 55 air strikes have been conducted since the offensive began on Monday, and that the rebel forces had secured areas on the western bank of the Euphrates River.

“They are facing some heavy resistance from ISIS, which was expected” but “are continuing to move forward,” he added.

Manbij is located along a route connecting Raqa - ISIS’s de facto capital - to the Turkish border, a vital conduit for supplies.

A rebel victory would inflict one of the largest strategic defeats on ISIS since it proclaimed its rule over territory in Iraq and Syria two years ago.

Retaking Manbij would “cut this key route to prevent ISIS from using it to move fighters, weapons, finances, supplies into and out of Syria and Iraq,” Ryder said.

Some 3,000 local Arab fighters are taking part in the offensive, backed by around 500 Kurdish militia members.

“They are from this area, they are liberating their hometown,” Ryder said.

US Special Forces are also working “at the command and control level” in the operation, he added.

The United States has sought to mobilize Arab groups in the ground offensive against ISIS since the launch of the US-led coalition campaign in September 2014.

With little success so far, a victory for Arab rebels in Manbij would provide welcome news for the White House.