US-backed forces repel IS attack in east Syria
August 18 2018 10:48 PM
Rebel fighters from the Suqur Al-Sham brigades walk through trenches in the countryside of the northern Idlib province.


US-backed forces have repelled a raid by the Islamic State group targeting barracks housing American and French troops in eastern Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday.
The Syrian Democratic Forces and the US-led coalition supporting them were on high alert after the raid late Friday at the Omar oil field in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, the Britain-based war monitor said.
“The attack targeted the oil field’s housing, where US-led coalition forces and leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces are present,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
Seven militants were killed in the attack, which ended at dawn after clashes near the barracks, he added.
Neither the US-led coalition nor the Kurdish-led SDF was immediately available for comment.
In October last year, the SDF took control of the Omar oil field, one of the largest in Syria, which according to The Syria Report economic weekly had a pre-war output of 30,000 barrels per day.
“It’s the largest attack of its kind since the oil field was turned into a coalition base” following its capture by the SDF, Abdel Rahman said.
IS overran large swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014, proclaiming a “caliphate” in territory it controlled.
But the militant group has since lost nearly all of it to multiple offensives in both countries.
In Syria, two separate campaigns - by the US-backed SDF and by the Russia-supported government - have reduced IS’s presence to pockets in Deir Ezzor and in the vast desert that lies between it and the capital.
Meanwhile, Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, largely dominated by the militants, is the last to remain mostly out of regime control after more than seven years of civil war.
It is to Idlib that President Bashar al-Assad’s government sends rebels or civilians evacuated from other opposition strongholds, retaken after devastating sieges and offensives.
Here is some background.
— Falls in 2015 — 
The strategically important province shares a border with Turkey and is also adjacent to Latakia, a regime stronghold on the Mediterranean coast that is home to Assad’s clan.
The province counts some 2.5mn inhabitants, including around half of them displaced from other areas by the war.
Before fighting broke out in 2011, most of Idlib’s inhabitants worked in agriculture, mainly growing cotton and cereals, or commuted to the neighbouring province of Aleppo.
In March 2015, a coalition of rebel groups including some linked to Al Qaeda seized the province’s main city, also called Idlib.
— Islamists vying for control — 
Around 60% of Idlib province is currently controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), led by Syria’s former Al Qaeda affiliate, with other hardline groups also present.
In February 2018, Islamist outfits Ahrar al-Sham and Nureddine al-Zinki announced they were merging as the Syrian Liberation Front to counter the growing power of HTS.
The group launched an assault against the militant alliance’s positions, taking back the provincial towns of Ariha and Maaret al-Numan.
On August 1, the group announced the formation of a new coalition, the National Liberation Front, which merges with four other rebel factions.
— Chemical attacks — 
Regime forces have been accused of several chemical attacks in Idlib province.
In February 2018, at least 11 cases of suffocation were reported at Saraqeb, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, quoting inhabitants and medical sources who spoke of a “toxic gas”.
A sarin gas attack in April 2017 hit the town of Khan Sheikhun, killing 83 people, according to the United Nations.
The Observatory said 87 died, including more than 30 children.
In October, the United Nations blamed the regime, which has consistently denied responsibility.
In August 2016, a UN commission found helicopters from two regime-controlled air bases had dropped chlorine-filled barrel bombs on two Idlib villages in 2014 and 2015.
In October that year, the commission concluded that the army also carried out a chemical attack, probably with chlorine, at a third village in 2015.
— Regime’s next goal — 
Idlib province was one of the four “de-escalation” zones established in September 2017 in a bid to reduce violence.
However, government forces in December, backed by Russian airpower, launched an offensive in the southeast of the province.
After weeks of intense fighting they had control dozens of villages and towns, as well as the military airport of Abu Duhur.
The province became a priority for the regime after its Russia-backed victories in 2018 against rebel holdouts in Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, and in the country’s south.
“Now Idlib is our goal,” Assad said on July 26.
But analysts say any offensive will likely be limited in scope, giving more time for a deal between Russia and Turkey on the fate of the province.
On August 9, regime forces shelled areas around the southwestern town of Jisr al-Shughur, and dropped leaflets in the province’s eastern countryside urging people to surrender.
The United Nations called for urgent negotiations to avert “a civilian bloodbath” in Idlib.

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