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US-Backed Syrian Fighters Targeting New IS-Held Town

Al-Bab is lying on a key highway about half way between the embattled northern city of Aleppo and Manbij, which the SDF liberated from extremist forces last week

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File -Syrian rebels fire a mortar towards regime forces stationed at Kwiriss airport in Al-Bab, 30 kilometers from the northeastern Syrian city of Aleppo, February 14, 2013 (VOA)

Syria, August 15, 2016: A U.S.-backed coalition of Syrian fighters will now target another IS-held town near the Turkish border. On Sunday The Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters backed by U.S. air power, announced “the creation of the Al-Bab Military Council,” with the aim of liberating the town and the region around it.

Al-Bab is lying on a key highway about half way between the embattled northern city of Aleppo and Manbij, which the SDF liberated from extremist forces last week. By capturing al-Bab, the rebels would tighten their grip on the area along the Turkish border, making it more difficult for the so-called Islamic State to infiltrate fighters and supplies.

The siege at Manbij, a key outpost on a jihadist supply route to the self-declared IS capital, Raqqa, ended Friday when Islamic State forces abandoned the city after two months of fighting.

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Saturday saw spontaneous celebrations from civilians returning to the wrecked city.

In other developments, monitors linked to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday that Syrian and Russian warplanes launched a new wave of airstrikes near the embattled city of Aleppo. In a statement, the SOHR said the overnight strikes had killed at least 45 civilians in and near the city, and at least 22 others elsewhere in Idlib province.

The Syrian army recaptured military positions in southern Aleppo province. Image Source: sputniknews.com
The Syrian army recaptured military positions in southern Aleppo province. Image Source: sputniknews.com

The monitoring group said the ongoing strikes were targeting areas held by a rebel coalition known as the Army of Conquest, an alliance of rebels and jihadist groupings seeking to break the months-long government siege of Aleppo.

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The multi-sided Syrian civil war pits the government forces of President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies against a loosely knit coalition of rebels seeking to drive Assad from power. That coalition includes al-Qaida-linked fighters, making Western governments reluctant to send arms to the rebels.

The third major party to the five-year-old conflict, the extremist Islamic State, is seeking to establish an Islamist “caliphate” in large swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq. The group has used widely circulated videos to show its fighters slaughtering hundreds of civilians as it seeks to expand its rule.

For its part, the Syria Democratic Forces, formed in 2015 with U.S. support, has focused on driving IS fighters from strongholds along the Turkish border.

The United Nations estimates more than 400,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians, since fighting first erupted near Damascus in 2011. (VOA)

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US Backed Fighters Say, ‘They Have Taken Position in Islamic State Enclave in Syria’

The enclave resembles an encampment, filled with stationary vehicles and rough shelters with blankets or tarpaulins that could be seen flapping in the wind during a lull in fighting as people walked among them

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Fire is seen during fighting in the Islamic State's final enclave, in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria March 17, 2019. VOA

U.S.-backed fighters said they had taken positions in Islamic State’s last enclave in eastern Syria and air strikes pounded the tiny patch of land beside the Euphrates River early on Monday, a Reuters journalist said.

Smoke rose over the tiny enclave as warplanes and artillery bombarded it. Another witness said the jihadists had earlier mounted a counter attack.

“Several positions captured and an ammunition storage has been blown up,” said Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia, on Twitter late on Sunday.

The enclave resembles an encampment, filled with stationary vehicles and rough shelters with blankets or tarpaulins that could be seen flapping in the wind during a lull in fighting as people walked among them.

Backed by air power and special forces from a U.S.-led coalition, the SDF has pushed Islamic State from almost the entire northeastern corner of Syria, defeating it in Raqqa in 2017 and driving it to its last enclave at Baghouz last year.

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The Islamic State group’s last pocket of territory in Baghouz, Syria, as seen from a distance on Sunday, March 17, 2019. VOA

But while its defeat at Baghouz will end its control of populated land in the third of Syria and Iraq that it captured in 2014, the group will remain a threat, regional and Western officials say.

The SDF has waged a staggered assault on the enclave, pausing for long periods over recent weeks to allow surrendering fighters, their families and other civilians to pour out.

Since Jan. 9, more than 60,000 people have left the enclave, about half of them surrendering Islamic State supporters including some 5,000 fighters, the SDF said on Sunday.

People leaving the area have spoken of harsh conditions inside, under coalition bombardment and with supplies of food so scarce some resorted to eating grass.

Last month, the SDF said it had found a mass grave in an area it captured.

Still, many of those who left Baghouz have vowed their allegiance to the jihadist group, which last week put out a propaganda film from inside the enclave calling on its supporters to keep faith.

Suicide attacks on Friday targeted families of Islamic State fighters attempting to leave the enclave and surrender, killing six people, the SDF said.

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Late on Sunday, the Kurdish Ronahi TV station aired footage showing a renewed assault on the enclave, with fires seen to be raging inside and tracer fire and rockets zooming into the tiny area.

The SDF and the coalition say the Islamic State fighters inside Baghouz are among the group’s most hardened foreign fighters, though Western countries believe its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has left the area. (VOA)