AFP/Tabqa Dam, Syria
Clashes raged around a key northern Syrian town yesterday after the Islamic State group launched a counter-attack to fend off a US-backed advance near the militants’ stronghold Raqqa.
Backed by air power from the international coalition bombing IS, the Syrian Democratic Forces are laying the groundwork for an assault on the heart of the militants’ so-called “caliphate”.
A key part of the campaign is the battle for the IS-held town of Tabqa on the Euphrates River, as well as the adjacent dam and military airport.
The SDF seized the Tabqa airbase late Sunday and began moving north towards the town itself, but IS fighters began pushing back on Tuesday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“The fighting is a result of IS launching a counter-offensive to exhaust the Syrian Democratic Forces around the Tabqa military airport,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Observatory.
The SDF was working to “consolidate its positions” near the airport ahead of a final push for the town, he said.
IS launched the attack with a car bomb targeting SDF forces stationed near the airport, the alliance’s media arm said.
Fierce clashes broke out but the SDF held back the attack and managed to seize some ammunition and rocket stores from IS, according to pictures published by the SDF.
SDF fighters are also bearing down on the Tabqa dam after capturing its northern entrance on Friday from IS fighters.
The fight around the structure has been backed by forces from the US-led coalition, with American-made armoured vehicles bearing the markings of the US Marine Corps seen moving along a nearby road.
An AFP correspondent at the dam yesterday said it was generally quiet around the dam itself, despite the occasional IS-fired mortar that landed in SDF-controlled parts of the riverbank.
Planes could be heard above as SDF forces patrolled the northern entrance of the structure.
Yesterday, coalition forces could be seen standing near military vehicles less than two kilometres from the dam, their mortar rounds casually stacked nearby.
After a brief pause in fighting on Monday to allow technicians to enter the dam complex, SDF fighters resumed their operations around the structure, said spokeswoman Jihan Sheikh Ahmed.
“IS amassed its fighters and attacked our forces in the area, which forced us to respond and resume the operations to liberate the dam,” she said.
Earlier this year, the United Nations raised concern about the prospect of damage to the dam in fighting, warning that water levels — which put pressure on the structure — were already high.
IS has accused the US-led coalition of bringing the dam to near-collapse with its air strikes, and yesterday it said an American air raid killed top technicians at the dam.
“An American strike yesterday targeted the technical team at the Euphrates Dam, which killed the dam director, a technician, and an electrical engineer,” the group said on its Amaq propaganda channel.
The SDF launched its offensive for Raqqa city in November, seizing around two thirds of the surrounding province, according to the Britain-based Observatory. At their closest point, the forces are just eight kilometres from Raqqa city, to the northeast.
But they are mostly further away, between 18 and 29 kilometres from Raqqa.
The Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground in Syria, said IS had deployed around 900 fighters from Raqqa city to various fronts in the wider province.
“Fighting is raging on every front around the city of Raqqa, accompanied by non-stop air strikes,” Abdel Rahman said.
Syria’s conflict began with protests against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 but has turned into a brutal war pitting government forces, militants, rebels and Kurds against each other.
UN-mediated talks between government and rebel representatives continued yesterday in Geneva, aimed at bringing an end to the war that has killed 320,000 people.
The lead negotiator for the main opposition High Negotiations Committee, Mohamad Sabra, said in an interview late Monday that there could be “no real and viable political solution without the presence of the Americans.”
Guterres calls for unity against Syria war
UN chief Antonio Guterres called on Arab leaders yesterday to set aside their differences to confront Syria’s six-year conflict, as he toured a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.
“Arab unity is a very important element in order to allow this region to be stabilised and for...the Syrian refugees to find again a future that corresponds to their aspirations,” Guterres said.
Speaking on the eve of an Arab League summit hosted by Jordan, the UN chief said: “When Arab countries are divided, it has allowed others to intervene and to manipulate situations, creating instability, breeding conflict and facilitating the lives of terrorist organisations.”
Guterres met with women and girls living in Zaatari, home to some 80,000 Syrian refugees.
Syria’s conflict began with protests against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 but has turned into a brutal war pitting government forces, militants, rebels, and Kurds against each other.
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