U.S. Backed Rebels Have Broken Through Raqqa’s Old Cities Walls: ISIS Caliphate Is On It’s Way To Hell

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

US-backed rebels have breached a strategic wall surrounding the Old City of Raqqa in ISIS’s self-declared capital on Monday, US Central Command has said in a statement.

Breaching the Rafiqah Wall means the Syrian Democratic Forces will be able to penetrate Raqqa’s Old City, the last redoubt of ISIS defenders in the city. The ancient wall — first constructed in the 8th century by the Abbasid dynasty and stretching around the Old City on three sides — has provided important fortification for ISIS.
The operation was “a key milestone” in the campaign to “liberate the city,” Brett McGurk, the US envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, said on his official Twitter account.
In a CENTCOM statement, the US added: “Coalition forces supported the SDF advance into the most heavily fortified portion of Raqqa by opening two small gaps in the Rafiqah Wall that surrounds the Old City.”
The battle for Raqqa is not dissimilar to that of Mosul, where US-backed Iraqi forces are fighting to expel the last of ISIS fighters from Iraq’s second-largest city. But the fight to retake Raqqa has gone quicker, with attacking forces gradually forcing a diminishing number of ISIS fighters into a smaller area of narrow streets around the ancient mosque of Rafiqa, which has already been extensively damaged.
The Rafiqah Wall — which is 3 kilometers from the city center — is approximately 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) long, 3.8 meters (12.4 feet) high and 1 meter thick, Syrian state media reported in 2009.
ISIS fighters had planted mines and improvised explosive devices at several breaks in the wall, a US Central Command (CENTCOM) statement said.
“The portions targeted were 25-meter sections and will help preserve the remainder of the overall 2,500-meter wall,” CENTCOM said.
CENTCOM and the SDF did not specify which area of the wall was breached.
The SDF launched an offensive to seize Raqqa on June 6. For more than three years, ISIS has used Raqqa as a staging ground for its deadly attacks on the Middle East and further overseas.
The group is running out of places to go. If ISIS is evicted from Raqqa it will lose the last vestige of any “governance” of its so-called caliphate. But it’s not just losing control of territory, it will also lose the facility to move freely between Syria and Iraq — especially since Iraqi militia seized the key town of Baaj last month.
The coalition hopes that the loss of Raqqa and Mosul will dull ISIS’ appeal to potential recruits.
“It’s hard to convince new recruits that ISIS is a winning cause when they just lost their twin ‘capitals’ in both Iraq and Syria,” General Steve Townsend, the coalition’s commanding general, said.

Syrian Observatory: dozens killed in air strike in Islamic State-held town

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS)

Syrian Observatory: dozens killed in air strike in Islamic State-held town

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday dozens of people were killed in an air strike believed to have been carried out by the U.S.-led coalition on an Islamic State prison in eastern Syria.

The U.S.-led coalition said it would look into the report.

The Observatory said the air strike took place on Monday at dawn, hitting a building in the town of al-Mayadeen that was being used as a prison. It said at least 42 people were killed, identifying them as prisoners of Islamic State.

Syrian state-run TV station al-Ikhbariya cited its correspondent in Deir al-Zor as saying coalition warplanes had destroyed a building in al-Mayadeen used as a prison by Islamic State. In a news bulletin flashed on screen, it said the building had been used as a prison for a “large number of civilians”.

Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said: “With every single allegation we will take it and look into it.

“If we are responsible for any civilian casualties we come forth and admit it,” he said. He said Observatory reporting had previously been exaggerated.

Islamic State is believed to have moved most of its leaders to al-Mayadeen in Syria’s Euphrates Valley, southeast of the group’s besieged capital Raqqa, two U.S. intelligence officials have said.

Among the operations moved to al-Mayadeen, about 80 km (50 miles) west of the Iraqi border, were its online propaganda operation and its limited command and control of attacks in Europe and elsewhere, they said.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

U.S. On Collision Course With Syria, Russia And Iran Once De-Facto ISIS Capital Falls

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

U.S. on collision course with Syria and Iran once de facto Islamic State capital falls

June 21 at 7:42 PM
Trump administration officials, anticipating the defeat of the Islamic State in its de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa, are planning for what they see as the next stage of the war, a complex fight that will bring them into direct conflict with Syrian government and Iranian forces contesting control of a vast desert stretch in the eastern part of the country.To some extent, that clash has already begun. Unprecedented recent U.S. strikes against regime and Iranian-backed militia forces have been intended as warnings to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Tehran that they will not be allowed to confront or impede the Americans and their local proxy forces.

As regime and militia forces have begun advancing eastward, senior White House officials have been pushing the Pentagon to establish outposts in the desert region. The goal would be to prevent a Syrian or Iranian military presence that would interfere with the U.S. military’s ability to break the Islamic State’s hold on the Euphrates River valley south of Raqqa and into Iraq — a sparsely populated area where the militants could regroup and continue to plan terrorist operations against the West.

Officials said Syrian government claims on the area would also undermine progress toward a political settlement in the long-separate rebel war against Assad, intended to stabilize the country by limiting his control and eventually driving him from power.

The wisdom and need for such a strategy — effectively inserting the United States in Syria’s civil war, after years of trying to stay out of it, and risking direct confrontation with Iran and Russia, Assad’s other main backer — has been a subject of intense debate between the White House and the Pentagon.

Some in the Pentagon have resisted the move, amid concern about distractions from the campaign against the Islamic State and whether U.S. troops put in isolated positions in Syria, or those in proximity to Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, could be protected. European allies in the anti-Islamic State coalition have also questioned whether U.S.-trained Syrians, now being recruited and trained to serve as a southern ground-force vanguard, are sufficient in number or capability to succeed.

One White House official, among several who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss Syria planning, dismissed such concerns, saying: “If you’re worried that any incident anywhere could cause Iran to take advantage of vulnerable U.S. forces . . . if you don’t think America has real interests that are worth fighting for, then fine.”

The official said the expanded U.S. role would not require more troops, comparing it to “The Rat Patrol,” the 1960s television series about small, allied desert forces deployed against the Germans in northern Africa during World War II.

“With our ability with air power . . . you’re not talking about a lot of requirements to do that,” the official said. “. . . You don’t need a lot of forces to go out and actually have a presence.”

This official and others played down reports of tensions over Syria strategy. “No one disagrees about the strategy or the objectives,” said a second White House official. “The question is how best to operationalize it.”

The Pentagon, not the White House, made the decision to shoot down Iranian drones and a Syrian fighter jet in response to their approaches to or attacks against U.S. forces and their Syrian allies, this official said. “They shot down an enemy aircraft for the first time in more than a decade. That’s accepting a high level of risk,” the official said. “. . . We’ve done quite a lot since April that the previous administration said was impossible without the conflict spiraling.”

Ilan Goldenberg, a former senior Pentagon official now in charge of the Center for New American Security’s Middle East program, agreed that the Obama administration “over-agonized” about every decision in Syria.

But Goldenberg faulted the Trump administration with failing to articulate its strategy. “It has been the worst of all worlds,” he said. “A vagueness on strategy, but a willingness to deploy force. They are totally muddying the waters, and now you have significant risk of escalation.”

“I know the president is fond of secret plans,” Goldenberg said. “But this situation requires clarity about our objectives and what we will or won’t tolerate.”

Trump promised during his campaign to announce within his first month in office a new strategy for defeating the Islamic State. That strategy remains unrevealed, and for several months Trump appeared to be following Obama’s lead in avoiding Assad, Iran and Russia and continuing a punishing assault on Islamic State strongholds elsewhere in Syria, as well as in Iraq.

In April, Trump broke that mold with a cruise-missile attack on regime forces after their use of chemical weapons against civilians. Assad and his allies protested but did little else.

More recently, however, there have been direct clashes between the United States and the regime. Trump’s campaign calls to join forces with Russia against the Islamic State have largely disappeared amid increased estrangement between Washington and Moscow and investigations of Trump associate’s contacts with Russian officials.

Despite U.S. warnings, regime and militia forces have moved toward the Syrian town of At Tanf, near the Iraq border, where U.S. advisers are training Syrian proxies to head northeast toward Deir al-Zour, the region’s largest city, controlled by the regime and surrounded by the Islamic State. It is a prize that the regime also wants to claim.

At the end of May, Syrian and Iranian-backed forces pushed southward to the Iraq border, between At Tanf and Bukamal, where the Euphrates crosses into Iraq. In Iraq, Iranian-backed militias have, in small but concerning numbers, left the anti-Islamic State fight and headed closer to the border, near where regime forces were approaching.

On at least three occasions in May and June, U.S. forces have bombed Iranian-supported militia forces approaching the At Tanf garrison. Twice this month, they have shot down what they called “pro-regime” armed drones, including one on June 8 that fired on Syrian fighters and their American advisers.

On Sunday, two days before the most recent drone shoot-down near At Tanf, a U.S. F/A-18 shot down a Syrian air-force jet southwest of Raqqa.

In response, Russia said it would train its powerful antiaircraft defense system in western Syria on farther areas where U.S. aircraft are operating and shut down the communications line that the two militaries have used to avoid each other in the crowded Syrian airspace.

“The only actions we have taken against pro-regime forces in Syria . . . have been in self-defense,” Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week.

Dunford also made clear that victory against the Islamic State in Raqqa, and in Mosul, where the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi forces are in the last stages of a months-long offensive, will not mark the end of the war.

“Raqqa is tactical. Mosul is tactical,” Dunford said. “We ought not to confuse success in Raqqa and Mosul as something that means it’s the end of the fight. I think we should all be braced for a long fight.”

In a report Wednesday, the Institute for the Study of War, referring to intelligence and expert sources, said that the Islamic State in Raqqa had already relocated “the majority of its leadership, media, chemical weapons, and external attack cells” south to the town of Mayadin in Deir al-Zour province.

Neither the U.S.-led coalition and its local allies nor what the institute called the “Russo-Iranian coalition” can “easily access this terrain — located deep along the Euphrates River Valley — with their current force posture,” it said.

At the White House, senior officials involved in Syria policy see what’s happening through a lens focused as much on Iran as on the Islamic State. The Iranian goal, said one, “seems to be focused on making that link-up with Iran-friendly forces on the other side of the border, to control lines of communication and try to block us from doing what our commanders and planners have judged all along is necessary to complete the ISIS campaign.” ISIS is another name for the Islamic State.

“If it impacts your political outcome, if it further enables Iran to solidify its position as the dominant force in Syria for the long haul,” the official said, “that threatens other things,” including “the defeat-ISIS strategy” and “the ability to get to political reconciliation efforts.”

“For us,” the official said, “that’s the biggest concern.”

Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed to this report.

U.S. aircraft shoots down a Syrian government jet over northern Syria, Pentagon says

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

U.S. aircraft shoots down a Syrian government jet over northern Syria, Pentagon says

June 18 at 6:21 PM

A U.S. strike aircraft shot down a Syrian government fighter jet Sunday shortly after the Syrians bombed U.S.-backed fighters in northern Syria, the Pentagon said in a statement.

The Pentagon said the downing of the aircraft came hours after Syrian loyalist forces attacked U.S.-backed fighters, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, in the village of Ja’Din, southwest of Raqqa. The rare attack was the first time a U.S. jet has shot down a manned hostile aircraft in more than a decade, and signaled the United States’ sharply intensifying role in Syria’s war.

The incident is the fourth time within a month that the U.S. military has attacked pro-Syrian government forces.

A statement distributed by the Syrian military said that the aircraft’s lone pilot was killed in the attack and that the jet was carrying out a mission against the Islamic State.

“The attack stresses coordination between the US and ISIS, and it reveals the evil intentions of the US in administrating terrorism and investing it to pass the US-Zionist project in the region,” the Syrian statement said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

Before it downed the Syrian plane, the U.S. military used a deconfliction channel to communicate with Russia, Syria’s main ally, to prevent the situation from escalating, the Pentagon said.

U.S.-led jets stopped the fighting by flying close to the ground and at a low speed in what is called a “show of force,” the Pentagon said.

About two hours later, despite the calls to stand down and the U.S. presence overhead, a Syrian Su-22 jet attacked the Syrian Democratic Forces, dropping an unknown number of munitions on the U.S.-backed force. Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, said that the Syrian aircraft arrived with little warning and that U.S. aircraft nearby tried to hail the Syrian jet after it had dropped its bombs. Thomas also said U.S. forces were in the area but were not directly threatened.

After the hailing attempts, a U.S. F/A-18 shot down the Syrian aircraft “in accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of coalition partnered forces,” the Pentagon said.

Thomas rejected the Syrian government’s claims that the aircraft was bombing the Islamic State, adding that Ja’Din is controlled by Syrian Democratic Forces and that the terrorist group had not been in the area for some time.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of predominantly Arab and Kurdish fighters, is a key proxy force for the U.S.-led coalition in Syria. The fighters were instrumental in retaking towns and villages from the Islamic State in recent months and are fighting to retake the extremist group’s de-facto capital of Raqqa.

Also on Sunday, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps announced that it had launched a rare cross-border missile attack against Islamic State militants in eastern Syria. The missile strikes, launched from Iran, were in retaliation for twin Islamic State attacks earlier this month in Tehran, the Iranian capital, on the parliament and the tomb of the leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution that killed 18 people, according to a statement carried by Iran’s official news agency.

The missile attacks had targeted a militant command center and other facilities in Deir El-Zour, a contested region in eastern Syria, where the United States, Iran, and other powers and proxy forces are fighting for control. The strikes had killed “a large number” of militants and destroyed equipment and weapons, the statement said.

Earlier this month, a U.S. jet downed a pro-Syrian government drone that dropped an apparent dud munition near U.S.-led coalition forces near the southern Syrian town of At Tanf. U.S.-led forces have increased their presence in Tanf to deter pro-Syrian government forces in the area. Iran-backed Shiite militias, along with other pro-Syrian government forces, have steadily advanced around Tanf despite repeated warnings from the U.S. military.

Tanf is a key town on the Iraq-Syrian border that has been home to a U.S. Special Operations training outpost for months.

“The coalition’s mission is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” the Pentagon’s statement said. “The coalition does not seek to fight Syrian regime, Russian, or pro-regime forces partnered with them, but will not hesitate to defend coalition or partner forces from any threat.”

Fahim reported from Istanbul. Louisa Loveluck contributed to this report from Beirut.

This article is developing and will be updated.

Russia May Have Killed The Butcher al-Baghdadi In May 28th Airstrike In Raqqa

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

Russia’s Defense Ministry says it is investigating reports that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in one of its airstrikes in Syria last month.

The airstrike on May 28 was carried out on the outskirts of the militant group’s de facto capital Raqqa, on a command post where ISIS leaders were meeting, according to Russian state media reports.
“According to information, which is being verified via different channels, the meeting was also attended by the (ISIS) leader Ibrahim Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was eliminated in the strike,” the ministry said, according to the TASS report in English. Other state media reported that more than 300 “terrorists” were killed in the strike.

An image grab taken from a propaganda video released on July 5, 2014 of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Mosul.

The leaders were discussing their exit from the city through the so-called southern corridor, the ministry said.
The airstrike was carried out following drone footage confirmation of the council’s meeting location, state-run Sputnik reports.
US defense officials said they were unable to confirm the reports. Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the US-led coalition’s operation against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, said the coalition “cannot confirm these reports at this time.”
There have been multiple reports of Baghdadi’s death in the past that have turned out to be false.

Al-Baghdadi: An elusive and brutal leader

Officials had long described the ISIS leader as enemy No. 1 in the fight against ISIS, and speculation had swirled over his whereabouts.
Baghdadi has kept a low profile, speaking out in occasional videos and audio messages.

Can ISIS ever be eradicated?

Can ISIS ever be eradicated?
He gave a sermon at a mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, in which he declared himself the leader of his envisaged Islamic caliphate. The sermon was filmed and widely watched around the world.
US forces captured him in Falluja, Iraq, in 2004. At the time, he was considered a low-level al Qaeda member.
He was freed in 2009, and within a year was the leader of Iraq’s al Qaeda affiliate, heading up a renewed campaign of bombings and assassinations. Al Qaeda leaders later severed relations with him, saying he was insubordinate, killing too many civilians.
As the leader of ISIS, which has seized and lost swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, he earned a reputation for brutality.
The extremist group brought a reign of terror and intimidation into areas where they gained control. And the brutality has continued, despite military setbacks. In one reported case, ISIS slaughtered 163 civilians and left their bodies in the street for days, the United Nations said.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, which is a nom de guerre, was born Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al Samarrai.

From ‘caliph’ to fugitive: Islamic State leader Baghdadi’s new life on the run

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE HINDUSTAN TIMES)

From ‘caliph’ to fugitive: Islamic State leader Baghdadi’s new life on the run

One of Baghdadi’s main concerns is to ensure those around him do not betray him for the $25 million reward offered by the United States to bring him ‘to justice’.

WORLD Updated: Jun 12, 2017 22:05 IST

Islamic State
A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi making what would have been his first public appearance, at a mosque in the centre of Iraq’s second city, Mosul.(Reuters File)

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is on the brink of losing the two main centres of his ‘caliphate’ but even though he is on the run, it may take years to capture or kill him, officials and experts said.

Islamic State fighters are close to defeat in the twin capitals of the group’s territory, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, and officials say Baghdadi is steering clear of both, hiding in thousands of square miles of desert between the two.

“In the end, he will either be killed or captured, he will not be able to remain underground forever,” said Lahur Talabany, the head of counter-terrorism at the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq. “But this is a few years away still,” he told Reuters.

One of Baghdadi’s main concerns is to ensure those around him do not betray him for the $25 million reward offered by the United States to bring him “to justice”, said Hisham al-Hashimi, who advises Middle East governments on Islamic State affairs.

“With no land to rule openly, he can no longer claim the title caliph,” Hashimi said. “He is a man on the run and the number of his supporters is shrinking as they lose territory.”

Iraqi forces have retaken much of Mosul, the northern Iraqi city the hardline group seized in June 2014 and from which Baghdadi declared himself “caliph” or leader of all Muslims shortly afterwards. Raqqa, his capital in Syria, is nearly surrounded by a coalition of Syrian Kurdish and Arab groups.

Damaged cars are seen stacked in the middle of a road in western Mosul’s Zanjili neighbourhood on June 9, 2017, during ongoing battles to try to take the city from Islamic State (IS) group fighters. (AFP Photo)

The last public video footage of him shows him dressed in black clerical robes declaring his caliphate from the pulpit of Mosul’s medieval Grand al-Nuri mosque back in 2014.

Born Ibrahim al-Samarrai, Baghdadi is a 46-year-old Iraqi who broke away from al-Qaeda in 2013, two years after the capture and killing of the group’s leader Osama bin Laden.

He grew up in a religious family, studied Islamic Theology in Baghdad and joined the Salaafi jihadist insurgency in 2003, the year of the US-led invasion of Iraq. He was caught by the Americans who released him about a year later as they considered him then as a civilian rather than a military target.

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Bounty

He is shy and reserved, Hashimi said, and has recently stuck to the sparsely populated Iraq-Syria border where drones and strangers are easy to spot.

The US Department of State’s Counter-Terrorism Rewards Program had put the same $25 million bounty on Bin Laden and Iraqi former president Saddam Hussein and the reward is still available for Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Neither Saddam nor Bin Laden were voluntarily betrayed, but the bounties complicated their movements and communications.

“The reward creates worry and tension, it restricts his movements and limit the number of his guards,” said Fadhel Abu Ragheef, a Baghdad-based expert on extremist groups. “He doesn’t stay more than 72 hours in any one place.”

Baghdadi “has become nervous and very careful in his movements”, said Talabany, whose services are directly involved in countering Islamic State plots. “His circle of trust has become even smaller.”

His last recorded speech was issued in early November, two weeks after the start of the Mosul battle, when he urged his followers to fight the “unbelievers” and “make their blood flow as rivers”.

US and Iraqi officials believe he has left operational commanders behind with diehard followers to fight the battles of Mosul and Raqqa, to focus on his own survival.

It is not possible to confirm his whereabouts.

Baghdadi does not use phones and has a handful number of approved couriers to communicate with his two main aides, Iyad al-Obaidi, his defence minister, and Ayad al-Jumaili, in charge of security. There was no confirmation of an April 1 Iraqi state TV report that Jumaili had been killed.

Baghdadi moves in ordinary cars, or the kind of pick-up trucks used by farmers, between hideouts on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border, with just a driver and two bodyguards, said Hashimi.

The region is well known to his men as the hotbed of the Sunni insurgency against U.S. forces that invaded Iraq and later the Shia-led governments that took over the country.

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At the height of its power two years ago, Islamic State ruled over millions of people in territory running from northern Syria through towns and villages along the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys to the outskirts of the Iraqi capital Baghdad.

It persecuted non-Sunnis and even Sunnis who did not agree with its extreme version of Islamic law, with public executions and whippings for violating strict controls on appearance, behaviour and movement.

But the group has been retreating since in the face of a multitude of local, regional and international forces, driven into action by the scores of deadly attacks around the world that it has claimed or inspired.

A few hundred thousand people now live in the areas under the group’s control, in and around Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, in Syria’s east, and in a few pockets south and west of Mosul. Hashimi said Islamic State was moving some fighters out of Raqqa before it was encircled to regroup in Deir al-Zor.

Displaced Iraqi children gather behind a fence at the Hasan Sham camp for internally displaced people on June 10, 2017. (AFP Photo)

Mosul, with pre-war population of 2 million, was at least four times the size of any other the group has held. Up to 200,000 people are still trapped in the Old City, Islamic State’s besieged enclave in Mosul, lacking supplies and being used as human shields to obstruct the progress of Iraqi forces by a US-led international coalition.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, made of Kurdish and Arab groups supported by the US-led coalition, began to attack Raqqa last week, after a months-long campaign to cut it off.

The militants are also fighting Russian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, and mainly Sunni Muslim Syrian rebels backed by Turkey.

The last official report about Baghdadi was from the Iraqi military on Feb. 13. Iraqi F-16s carried out a strike on a house where he was thought to be meeting other commanders, in western Iraq, near the Syrian border, it said.

Overall, Islamic State has 8,000 fighters left, of which 2,000 are foreigners from other Arab states, Europe, Russia and central Asia, said Abu Ragheef.

“A small number compared to the tens of thousands arrayed against them in both countries, but a force to be reckoned with, made up of die-hards with nothing to lose, hiding in the middle of civilians and making extensive use of booby traps, mines and explosives,” he said.

The US government has a joint task force to track down Baghdadi which includes special operations forces, the CIA and other US intelligence agencies as well as spy satellites of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.

It will take more than that to erase his influence, Talabany said. “He is still considered the leader of ISIL and many continue to fight for him; that hasn’t changed drastically,” he said, using one of Islamic State’s acronyms.

Even if killed or captured, he added, “his legacy and that of ISIL will endure unless radical extremism is tackled.”

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US-Backed Syrian Fighters Seize Parts Of ISIS ‘Capital’ Raqqa

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

US-backed Syrian fighters seize parts of IS ‘capital’ Raqqa

June 11 at 10:43 AM
BEIRUT — A U.S.-backed Syrian opposition force said Sunday it has captured a northwestern neighborhood of the Islamic State group’s de-facto capital of Raqqa the second district to fall in their hands in days after the group launched a wide offensive to gain control of the extremists’ de facto capital.The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said its fighters captured the neighborhood of Romaniah after two days of fighting that left 12 IS gunmen dead, including a commander known as Abu Khattab al-Tunsi.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said SDF fighters now control Romaniah and the eastern neighborhood of Mashlab. The fighters have also entered Raqqa’s western neighborhood of Sabahiya and the industrial district in the east.

Raqqa was among the first cities captured by IS, in January 2014, and has been the home of some of the group’s most prominent leaders. The battle for the city is expected to be extended and bloody, and could mark a major turning point in the war against the extremists.

IS has been fortifying its positions in Raqqa for months, setting up barriers and hanging sheets of cloth over main streets to provide cover from warplanes. A belt of land mines and militant checkpoints circle the city.

SDF fighters began their offensive on the city of Raqqa on June 6 under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

The IS-linked Aamaq news agency said the city was subjected to intense airstrikes and shelling by the SDF and the U.S.-led coalition releasing a video that showed wide destruction in one of the neighborhoods. The video also showed severely wounded men and children being rushed to hospitals.

In southern Syria, Jordan said its border guards have killed five suspected infiltrators approaching the kingdom’s border from Syria in a pickup truck and two motorcycles.

The military said in a statement that the incident took place near the spot where Jordan, Syria and Iraq meet.

Jordan has been on alert for possible infiltrations by IS extremists who seized territories in Syria and Iraq in 2014. In recent months, Jordan expressed concern that U.S.-backed offensives against IS will push some of the militants closer to the kingdom’s border.

The army said nine vehicles approached Jordan from Syria in the past three days, and border guards opened fire to hold them back. The army says that in the latest incident, troops fired on a pickup truck and two motorcycles, killing five.

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Circling around US embeds, Syrian forces reach Iraq border  

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST AND THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Circling around US embeds, Syrian forces reach Iraq border

June 9 at 2:21 PM
BEIRUT — Russia’s Ministry of Defense reported on Friday that pro-government forces circled around U.S. military advisers in eastern Syria to reach the Iraqi border, dealing what could be a major blow to the declared U.S. mission to defeat Islamic State militants in the desert region.The development, if true, would mean Russian-backed pro-government forces have blocked the path of U.S.-backed opposition forces advancing north along the Iraqi-Syrian border, in the direction of the IS strongholds of Boukamal and Deir el-Zour, on the Euphrates River in eastern Syria.

The two forces have clashed regularly in the area, with U.S. aircraft twice striking Russian-backed forces the Pentagon said were threatening its local allies. The strikes are believed to have killed dozens of Syrian soldiers and Iranian-backed militia forces, in addition to destroying tanks and heavy weapons. On Thursday, the U.S. shot down an armed drone it said had attacked its units embedded with local opposition forces in the region.

By circling around them, the Russian-backed forces have apparently avoided a direct confrontation with U.S.-backed forces based out of al-Tanf, the border post under U.S. and opposition control.

They are advancing in the direction of Boukamal, according to Col. Gen, Sergei Surovikin, the commander of Russian forces in Syria.

On their side of the border, Iraqi forces, along with Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Committee militias, are advancing through IS-held territory to meet the Russian-backed forces at the frontier, according to a Lebanese TV station close to the Syrian government.

The evening news broadcast on Al-Manar TV, which belongs to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, hailed the advance of the pro-government forces, and the Hezbollah fighters embedded with them.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group also reported the development, saying it was the first time government forces have reached the Iraqi border in over three years.

The United States Central Command said it “does not seek to fight the Syrian regime, Russian or pro-regime forces partnered with them,” but promised to take “appropriate measures” to protect U.S. forces tasked with defeating the Islamic State group.

“As long as pro-regime forces are oriented toward Coalition and partnered forces the potential for conflict is escalated,” CENTCOM said in a statement to The Associated Press.

“Coalition forces are oriented on ISIS in the Euphrates River Valley,” the statement added, using a different acronym for the Islamic State group.

The U.N. children’s agency warned Friday that the fight for IS’s stronghold of Raqqa threatens more than 40,000 children, while overnight airstrikes on the city in northern Syria killed more than a dozen people.

The violence has displaced residents in and around the city, with about 80,000 children living in temporary shelters and camps, UNICEF said in a statement.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces launched an attack on Raqqa earlier this week and airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition have intensified since then.

“An estimated 40,000 children remain trapped in extremely dangerous conditions in Raqqa. Many are caught in the crossfire,” said UNICEF regional director Geert Cappelaere. He urged all parties to give safe passage to those who want to leave.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported more than 25 overnight airstrikes on Raqqa killed 17 people, including 12 at an internet cafe. One of the dead was an activist with the group, it added.

In addition to the airstrikes, Raqqa was subjected to artillery and missile attacks, according to the activist collective known as Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently. It said the coalition used white phosphorous in the attacks.

In a video posted on its Aamaq news agency, IS also alleged the coalition used white phosphorous over Raqqa on Thursday at dusk, when Muslims would have been breaking their Ramadan fasts.

White phosphorous burns at extremely high temperatures and can be used to illuminate conflict zones or obscure them with smoke. International law prohibits its use in civilian areas because of its indiscriminate effects, from starting fires to causing excruciating burns for bystanders, according to Human Rights Watch, which said it was investigating the allegations.

The U.S. CENTCOM military command refused to comment on specific allegations but said it uses white phosphorous rounds “in accordance with the law of armed conflict … in a way that fully considers the possible incidental effects on civilians and civilian structures.”

___

Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Maamoun Youssef in Cairo, and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Turkish Military Bombs U.S. Backed Kurdish Militia Forces Fighting Against ISIS

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

(CNN) The Turkish military on Tuesday killed more than 20 members of Kurdish militia groups, some of which the United States is assisting in the fight against ISIS.

Five of the casualties were among Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq, known as Peshmerga.
Others were reported by the YPG, a Kurdish group in northern Syria.
Both groups have proven to be some of the most effective fighting forces on the ground against ISIS. Yet Tuesday’s airstrikes exposed the complicated tangle of Kurdish militant groups in the region, and the tough choices that the United States faces in its regional alliances in the battle against ISIS.
The five Peshmerga fighters were killed apparently in error when Turkish warplanes carried out airstrikes on nearby positions of another group that Turkey considers to be terrorists, the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, which is usually based in Turkey.
The strikes hit at dawn on Mount Sinjar, west of Mosul, Iraq, according to a spokesman for the Peshmerga ministry.
Nine others were injured and transferred to a nearby hospital. The Peshmerga later released a statement blaming the strikes on the presence of the PKK group, which it said it has long asked to leave the Mount Sinjar area.
“One of our Peshmerga military posts is located very close to the airstrikes and was hit by mistake,” Halgord Hikmat, spokesman for the Peshmerga ministry, told CNN.

YPG calls attack ‘cowardly’

YPG militia members were also killed in Turkish airstrikes Tuesday.
In a statement, the YPG said Turkish planes launched a “large-scale attack” on its headquarters in Mount Karachok near Syria’s border with Turkey, killing “a number of our comrades.”
A YPG spokesman said in a later statement that 20 fighters were killed and 18 others wounded. But it’s not clear if all the dead and injured were members of YPG, or People’s Defense Units.

A YPG fighter surveys the site of Turkish airstrikes Tuesday in northeastern Syria near Turkey.

“We as the People’s Defense Units say that this cowardly attack will not discourage our determination and our free will to fight and confront terrorism,” the YPG said.
The YPG is a key component of the Syrian Democratic Forces — backed by the United States in the fight against ISIS in Syria. Those forces have been closing in on the ISIS stronghold in Raqqa.
But Turkey opposes the YPG because it fears Kurdish separatism.

Turkey says PKK was the target

Turkey’s operations Tuesday were targeting the PKK, which Ankara, the United States and the European Union consider to be a terror group.
For decades, Turkey has been facing a violent insurgency from the PKK — a banned group that first took up arms in 1984 seeking an independent state for the Kurdish minority concentrated in the country’s southeast.
Turkey has often suggested that the PKK and YPG operate closely, although the YPG denies such ties.
Tuesday’s airstrikes were not the first time that Turkish warplanes have targeted PKK positions in Iraq and Syria.
In a statement issued via Turkey’s state-run news agency, Anadolu, the Turkish General Staff said the airstrikes hit PKK targets in both countries.
It described the strikes as a “counterterrorism” operation “within the scope of the international law” to prevent the PKK from sending “terrorists, arms, ammunition, and explosives” to Turkey.

U.S. Drops A Bomb Own Their Own Allies In Syria: 18 Dead

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

(CNN) The US-led coalition has killed 18 of its own allies in Syria in what it described as a misdirected airstrike.

The strike was carried out on Tuesday and killed members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Washington and other nations have backed and coordinated with to fight ISIS militants in the country.
“The strike was requested by the partnered forces, who had identified the target location as an ISIS fighting position. The target location was actually a forward Syrian Democratic Forces fighting position,” the US Central Command said in a statement Thursday.
“The coalition’s deepest condolences go out to the members of the SDF and their families. The coalition is in close contact with our SDF partners who have expressed a strong desire to remain focused on the fight against ISIS despite this tragic incident.”
The statement said that the coalition was assessing the incident.
The airstrike was carried out south of Tabqa, a focus area for the coalition as it closes in on the ISIS heartland of Raqqa.

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