US-backed forces close in on ISIS bastion

Syria Democratic Forces aim to dislodge ISIS from last foothold at Syrian-Turkish frontier

Syrian Kurds at the funeral last week of fighters who died during an assault launched by Kurdish and Arab forces against ISIS in Manbij.
Syrian Kurds at the funeral last week of fighters who died during an assault launched by Kurdish and Arab forces against ISIS in Manbij.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BEIRUT • US-backed Syrian fighters have surrounded the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)-held city of Manbij from three sides, as they pressed on with an offensive against the Islamists near the Turkish border, a spokesman for the fighters said yesterday.

The Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), including the powerful Kurdish YPG militia and Arab allies, launched the attack last week with the ultimate aim of dislodging ISIS from its last foothold on the Syrian- Turkish frontier.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that reports on the war, said the US-backed forces had cut the road north from Manbij to ISIS-held Jarabulus at the Turkish border, which is also expected to be targeted.

Mr Sharfan Darwish, the spokesman for the Manbij Military Council, said the US-backed alliance had advanced to within 6km of Manbij, and the attack was going to plan. More than 150 terrorists had been killed, with 50 of the bodies in SDF hands, he said.

He said there were fatalities among the SDF, and the number would be announced later.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attacking forces were less than 4km from Manbij at the closest point. Its director, Mr Rami Abdulrahman, said 56 ISIS members had been killed so far, and 19 SDF fighters had died.

He said ISIS fighters had sent their families out of Manbij, but disputed Mr Darwish's account that the fighters had also left the city.

Mr Darwish had said many homes being used by ISIS members were now empty as they had left with their families. "They took everything they could and left the city," he said.

The offensive to retake Manbij has displaced some 20,000 civilians and could uproot about 216,000 more if it continues, a UN humanitarian agency said yesterday.

The report by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said it was possible that people would "face impediments" to moving out of ISIS-controlled areas and they had a critical need for shelter, drinking water, food and healthcare.

Civilians were mainly moving north towards nearby towns and to the Jarabulus border crossing with Turkey or west towards areas held by other rebel groups, while lesser numbers had gone south to villages along the Euphrates river.

OCHA said newly uprooted people might try to head towards Al-Bab or Azaz, two towns west of Manbij, or south to the Maskanah plain close to Lake Assad.

Offensives aimed at rolling back ISIS insurgents around Tabqa could also trigger displacement, OCHA said.

Tabqa, close to the Euphrates Dam at the other end of Lake Assad from Manbij, is the apparent target of a Russian-backed offensive by Syrian pro-government forces.

Both the US- and Russian-backed assaults appear to threaten the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, its capital in Syria, and both began last week shortly after the Iraqi army attempted to storm ISIS-held Fallujah in Iraq.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2016, with the headline 'US-backed forces close in on ISIS bastion'. Print Edition | Subscribe