US-backed Syria forces resume anti-Daesh battle

Deir Al Zor/Beirut: US-backed Syrian militias on Tuesday relaunched their offensive to seize the last territory Daesh controls in the east near the border with Iraq.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, had paused the battle after Turkey launched an assault in January against their northwestern Afrin region.

“We have rearranged our ranks,” said Lilwa Al Abdullah, spokeswoman for the offensive in oil-rich Deir Al Zor province.

Daesh stepped up attacks there in recent weeks in a bid to reorganise, she told a news conference at an oilfield on the eastern bank of the Euphrates river.

“Our heroic forces will liberate these areas and secure the border … We welcome the support of the Iraqi forces.” Ahmad Abu Khawla, commander of the Deir Al Zor military council fighting under the SDF, said they were working with the Baghdad government and Iraqi army “through a joint operations room” to defeat the terrorists.

Joint efforts had increased, but neither side would cross the border, he said.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said last week that he expected a “re-energised” effort soon against the ultra-hardline militants in eastern Syria.

Syrian fighters, backed by US air strikes and troops, have dealt heavy blows to Daesh, but the extremists still hold a swathe of land along the desert frontier with Iraq. They are widely expected to revert to guerrilla tactics if they lose the last remnants of their once self-styled “caliphate”.

The SDF alliance, spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, has seized vast tracts of territory from Daesh in north and east Syria. US support for Kurdish forces there has infuriated Turkey, which sees the YPG as an extension of an outlawed Kurdish insurgency at home.

Ankara’s offensive to expel the YPG from Afrin — where the United States has no presence — led to a pause in the campaign against Daesh, the Pentagon has said.

Meanwhile, dozens of hostages held by rebels in northern Syria reached regime lines on Tuesday, launching a deal for insurgents to quit an enclave south of Damascus, regime media and a monitor said.

Regime news agency Sana said 42 people were freed in the first step of the agreement, arriving in regime territory at a crossing near Aleppo city.

South of Damascus, buses shuttled 200 fighters and relatives out of the Yarmouk enclave under the swap between the regime and insurgents, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The fleet arrived at the same crossing near Aleppo in the early hours, the UK-based war monitoring group said. The fighters from Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, formerly linked to Al Qaida, would go to Idlib in the northwest near the Turkish border.

Bashar Al Assad’s military and its allies have pushed to crush the last insurgent footholds around the capital Damascus through a string of offensives and withdrawal deals.

The pocket south of Damascus includes zones held by Daesh and others by rebel factions, which have fought each other. It has been the focus of intense fighting since the Syrian army recaptured Eastern Ghouta last month with Russian and Iranian help.

Bombing has left parts of the once-teeming Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in ruins, and the United Nations raised warnings over the fate of civilians still stuck there.

The evacuation deal for Tahrir Al Sham to surrender also includes allowing people to leave two pro-regime Shiite villages, which the insurgents have encircled in Idlib.

State media said ambulances carried some critically ill patients out of the villages, Al Foua and Kefraya, on Tuesday morning in the first step of the agreement.


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