Syrian Conflict: Twin assaults against the Islamic State (IS)

Exclusive to The Middle East Online

Edited by Nelly Tawil

US-backed Syrian fighters and Iraqi forces pressed twin assaults against the Islamic State (IS) group on Wednesday, in two of the most important offensives yet against the militant group.

The twin offensives marked some of the most serious ground efforts against Islamic State since the militant group declared its self-styled “caliphate” straddling the Syrian-Iraqi border in 2014.

Islamic State controlled areas have been steadily diminishing for months however it has carried out a wave of attacks, including bombings in Syria, killing an estimate of 177 people in the process on Monday. It was the “deadliest bomb attack” on any regime-held area in Syria’s five-year war, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on Tuesday announced its largest offensive against Islamic State territory north of the jihadist’s stronghold of Raqqa city. The offensive was aimed at pushing Islamic State from the province’s north and securing other areas, the alliance said on Twitter.

US military spokesman Colonel Steve Warren confirmed the assault, saying it intended on “putting pressure on Raqqa”. He said the US would conduct airstrikes to support SDF fighters. If Raqqa falls, ”it’s the beginning of the end of their caliphate”, Colonel Warren said. SDF spokesman Talal Sello said an assault on Raqqa “is not in our plan now”. A source within the Kurdish People’s Protection Units said US ground forces would take part in the attack. Mr Sello denied this.

Leaflets dropped on Raqqa city had urged residents to flee the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Group that reports on the war using an activist network on the ground, says hundreds of families have left.

When the start of the Fallujah offensive was announced on Monday, Iraqi troops backed by pro-government militias had been advancing toward the city from surrounding areas.

The anti-Islamic State coalition headed by Washington has set its sights on Raqqa in Syria, as well as Fallujah and eventually Islamic State’s main bastion of Mosul in Iraq.

“It’s clear that if the US wants to eliminate IS, it has to attack it on multiple fronts at the same time,” said Washington-based Syria analyst Fabrice Balanche.

“Cutting the route between Raqqa and Mosul isn’t difficult today. It will put  an end to the myth of a transitional IS.”

On Wednesday forces from Iraq’s 8th Division bolstered by tribal fighters pushed forward from areas to its south, said Staff Major General Ismail al-Mahalawi, the head of the Operations Command for Iraq’s Anbar province.

US-led coalition warplanes and Iraqi aircraft were providing support, Mahalawi said.

In northern Syria, a Kurish-Arab alliance also backed by coalition strikes meanwhile fought IS in its bastion province of Raqqa.