US-backed Syria force closes in on ISIS-held city
Syrian fighters have surrounded Manbij from three sides as they press a major new offensive against the militants near the Turkish border
US-backed Syrian fighters have surrounded the ISIS-held city of Manbij from three sides as they press a major new offensive against the militants near the Turkish border, a spokesman for the fighters 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 Shi’ite-led government and powerful Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia.
The simultaneous assaults on Manbij in Syria and Falluja in Iraq, at opposite ends of ISIS territory, are two of the biggest operations yet against ISIS 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 ISIS 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 750 km 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 Shi’ite militia led by politicians who have emerged as rivals of Prime Minister Haider Abadi.
In Syria, the government of President Bashar al-Assad also launched a separate offensive last week against ISIS, with Russian air support.
The assaults by ISIS’ disparate enemies on a variety of fronts have put unprecedented pressure on the group, although its fighters 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 ISIS-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 6 km (4 miles) of Manbij, and the attack was going to plan. More than 150 militants had been killed, with 50 of the bodies in SDF hands, he said.
Homes being used by ISIS 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 ISIS 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 said 56 ISIS members and 19 SDF fighters had been killed so far. It also said ISIS fighters had sent their families out of Manbij, but did not confirm Darwish’s account that fighters themselves had left.
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