Kurds want rebels to lead Raqqa attack

A Kurdish militia leading an attack on ISIS strongholds in Syria so far has no plan to extend the assault to the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa city, and such an advance should be led by Syrian rebels, a Kurdish leader said Wednesday.

The comments by Saleh Muslim, leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), indicated there is no imminent offensive on Raqqa city by the Kurdish-led forces that have made swift gains against the extremists backed by U.S.-led airstrikes.

Backed by smaller Syrian rebel groups, the Kurdish YPG militia moved to within 50 km of Raqqa city Tuesday with the capture of the town of Ain Issa in northern Syria, backed by U.S.-led airstrikes.

Driven from areas north of Raqqa, ISIS was reported to be reinforcing its positions near the city Wednesday, digging trenches and bringing in truckloads of weapons.

But Muslim, whose party holds sway in Syria’s Kurdish areas, said it was up to rebel groups fighting with the YPG to decide on any advance on Raqqa itself.

“We spoke to the YPG leadership. They don’t have a plan towards Raqqa so far. This [decision] is linked to the revolutionary forces in Raqqa,” Muslim said in a telephone interview.

“When they are ready to free Raqqa, to liberate it, perhaps the YPG will decide to support them. But the YPG has not made a decision in this regard so far,” he said.

The YPG has emerged as the only notable partner on the ground to date for the U.S.-led alliance bombing ISIS in Syria, and has fought several successful campaigns against the militants with air support.

Muslim’s comments indicate the well-organized YPG’s reluctance to venture far beyond Kurdish areas to attack ISIS in parts of Syria where Arabs are in the majority: YPG’s stated aim is to defend the Kurdish areas.

The Obama administration has touted Kurdish-led advances as a model for the U.S.-backed effort to roll back the group, while a U.S. plan to train and equip the “moderate” opposition to fight ISIS is stumbling.

The capture of Tal Abyad at the Turkish border last week severed an important ISIS supply route.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said ISIS had called in reinforcements of 100 truckloads of weapons and ammunition which it was believed to be deploying at a military base on the Raqqa outskirts.

Some Syrian opposition activists have accused the YPG of driving Arabs and Turkmen from areas taken over in the latest advance – an accusation of ethnic cleansing echoed by the Turkish government but vehemently denied by the YPG. The Observatory says it has not recorded any systematic abuse of human rights by the advancing YPG forces, though there have been some individual cases.

Muslim said claims of ethnic cleansing were aimed at igniting Arab-Kurdish strife and would not succeed, adding that returning the displaced to their homes was a priority for the YPG.

Elsewhere, Syrian state television said the army and allied militia had secured the perimeter of an oil field near Palmyra which had been the focus of recent heavy fighting with ISIS militants. The report said the army took control of the area surrounding Jazal field, territory which contains important sites for energy production in Homs province, and killed a number of ISIS fighters. The advance appeared to be an attempt to shore up defense lines near Palmyra, an ISIS-held city and UNESCO World Heritage site.

And at least 19 ISIS fighters were killed in a failed attack on an Alawite village, also in Homs province, according to the Observatory. The Observatory said three pro-regime militants were also killed repelling the attack on the village of Jub al-Jarrah. The monitor said the attack on the village in the northeast of the province came early Wednesday, with violent clashes breaking out after ISIS tried to storm the area.

Two ISIS suicide bombers Tuesday night killed 10 Syrian soldiers in the northeastern city of Hassakeh, the Observatory said. “The first attack was carried out by three [extremist militants] against a military barracks in the center of town, while the second was carried out by one suicide bomber against a checkpoint near a children’s hospital,” it said.

A third suicide bomber hit a post manned by the Kurdish security forces in the city, causing serious damage to buildings but no deaths. Control of Hassakeh is divided between Syrian troops and Kurdish forces.

Also Tuesday night, at least 13 civilians were killed in a car bomb attack against a mosque in a village near the capital Damascus, the Observatory said. The bomb exploded in the village of Al-Tal as worshippers were leaving prayers. It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack in the town, which lies just north of the capital, where a truce is in place between rebel forces inside and regime troops outside