SDF have begun the “long and difficult” battle to capture the city of Raqqa, Daesh’s de facto capital, the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Jihadist group said Tuesday.
YPG-led rebels began laying the groundwork for the offensive in November, edging through the surrounding province and cutting supply lines into the city. But a showdown for the city itself will prove a major test for the coalition, with the potential for high civilian casualties. “The fight for Raqqa will be long and difficult,” Lt. Gen Steve Townsend, the coalition’s commanding general, said in a statement.
In northeastern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces announced that “Great Battle” had begun for the liberation of the city of Raqqa, with the participation of the Army of Revolutionaries (Jaysh al-Thuwar), Jabhat al-Akrad, Democratic al-Shamal Brigades, Tribal Forces, Maghawir Humus Brigades, Siqur al-Raqqa, Liwa al-Tahrir, Seljuk Turkmen Brigade, Hamam Turkmen Martyrs Battalion, Sanadid Forces, Syriac Military Council, Manbij Military Council, Deir ez-Zor Military Council, Self-Defense Forces, Asayish Forces, YPG/YPJ and Nuxbe Forces.
Western diplomats and experts monitoring the Jihadist group say Daesh has relocated foot-soldiers and senior leaders to the eastern province of Deir al-Zour, where an even tougher fight against the Jihadists will be expected. But U.S. officials estimate that at least 3,000 Daesh fighters are still holed up inside Raqqa, where they have erected defenses against the anticipated assault. Among them are as many as 200,000 civilians, who aid groups fear may be used as human shields, a tactic employed by Daesh in its strongholds across Syria and Iraq as coalition forces closed in. Conditions inside the city are understood to be dire. According to a recent assessment by the Syria Relief Network, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations, two-thirds of the population are living on two meals a day amid dwindling supplies of essentials caused by the siege on the city.
SDF forces reached the northern and eastern gates to Raqqa last week after intense clashes under the cover of U.S.-led airstrikes. Talal Sillo, a spokesman for the SDF, said Tuesday that the “great battle” had begun. “Morale is high and military readiness to implement the military plan is complete, in coordination with the U.S.-led coalition,” he told reporters in northeast Syria, flanked by representatives of Kurdish male and female fighting units, as well as Syrian rebel groups and Arab tribesmen.
Ankara’s sour reaction
Washington’s decision to back a Kurdish-led force has soured relations with Turkey, a NATO ally, which is battling PKK militants within its own borders. In Ankara, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Tuesday that the army is not ruling out military force if the battle for Raqqa is seen as a threat to Turkey.
As Daesh forces dig deep across their remaining territory, civilians have increasingly been caught in the cross-fire, dying at the hands of the militants’ bombings and land mines as well as U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and SDF shelling. The International Rescue Committee said Tuesday that it was “deeply concerned” for Raqqa’s civilians and warned that they risked “facing the full brunt of the assault to come.”
A Turkish attack on US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters in northern Syria on August 28, 2016, killed 24 civilians, including 6 children; between 10 and 15 fighters deployed among the civilians were also killed, according to a Human Rights Watch report released on Wednesday.
Available information suggests that both sides could have done more to minimize civilian loss of life, as required by the laws of war. Two local residents told Human Rights Watch that before sunrise on August 28, Turkish aircraft struck SDF forces who had just disembarked from military vehicles among residential buildings in which about four dozen civilians had sought shelter from nearby fighting. Artillery shelling soon after resulted in additional casualties.
“The deaths of 24 civilians could have been avoided if the SDF fighters hadn’t positioned themselves among buildings filled with civilians and Turkish forces had made a better effort to determine whether civilians were there,” said Ole Solvang, deputy emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s unlawful to put civilians at unnecessary risk, and even an attack on a military target can be unlawful if the likely harm to civilians isn’t taken into account.”
Four days earlier, on August 24, Turkish forces and the Free Syrian Army opened military operations in northern Syria against Daesh (also known as Islamic State) and Kurdish forces from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main fighting force within the SDF, an alliance that also includes Arab and other forces. The United States and other Western countries have actively supported and armed the SDF in the fight against ISIS. The Turkish-Free Syrian Army alliance captured Jarablus, a town near the Turkish border previously held by ISIS, and then moved south of the town where they clashed with the SDF.
The two local residents said that on the evening of August 27, SDF troops asked them to evacuate their house near the village of Suraysat, about 12 kilometers south of Jarablus, because of nearby fighting. The troops told them that they would be safe in their cousin’s house, a kilometer away. A few days earlier, the troops had wanted to take over their cousin’s two houses, which sit on a hill, the residents said, but had eventually allowed the civilians to stay and moved to other houses further north. Eventually about 50 to 55 civilians moved into the houses on the hill. At about 4 a.m. on August 28, the SDF troops returned to the cousin’s houses, parked vehicles, including some with heavy machine guns mounted on the back, near the houses, and positioned fighters on the roof of the buildings, the two residents said. One person asked the fighters to leave, they said, but the fighters refused. Less than 30 minutes after the fighters arrived, the Turkish aircraft struck the houses.
“It was as if we were inside a dormant volcano that suddenly erupted,” one of the residents said. “I woke up in shock. The smell of explosives, the smell of the death – it was everywhere. My brother was seriously injured. His son was sitting in his lap so I pulled him away so that he couldn’t see what had happened. It was an awful sight. I then tried to pull my brother away, but another bomb fell and threw me away.” The two residents said that they counted seven bomb impacts, after which there was intensive artillery fire, which killed and injured people who came to assist the wounded. They did not know which forces had fired the artillery.
The two residents provided Human Rights Watch with the names of 13 relatives who died during the attack. Mohammad Othman, a relative who was not there, published on his Facebook page the names of 24 people killed in the attack, including 6 children and 6 women. One resident provided Human Rights Watch with a photograph that he had taken showing a destroyed SDF pickup truck with reinforced cardboard packaging tubes commonly used for ground-fired ammunition.
Satellite imagery from August 30 shows that the two buildings were almost completely destroyed sometime between August 27 and 30. A third building a kilometer away was also damaged. At least four impact craters are visible in the surrounding fields. Photographs of remnants of the weapon used indicate that Paveway-series laser-guided bombs were used in the airstrikes.
On August 28, as reported by the state-run Anadolu news agency, the Turkish Armed Forces said that they had carried out airstrikes against armed groups that had attacked Turkish forces in Jarablus. Anadolu said that the armed forces had reported that the attack had neutralized 25 “terrorists” and destroyed five buildings they were using.
Under the laws of war applicable to the armed conflict in Syria, warring parties must take all feasible precautions to protect civilians under their control against the effects of attacks. They must seek to remove civilians from the vicinity of their military forces. The Syrian Democratic Forces should not have positioned their forces in the compound without having first relocated the civilians to another area, Human Rights Watch said. Attacking forces must take all feasible precautions to minimize loss of civilian life. This includes taking necessary steps to assess whether an attack may be expected to cause civilian loss that would be disproportionate compared to the anticipated military advantage of the attack, and suspend such attacks.
The office of the Turkish prime minister, in a statement on August 28, said that the “Turkish Armed Forces has taken all necessary measures to prevent any harm to the civilian population,” referring to, among others, the military operations south of Jarablus. However, because the attack took place in darkness and soon after the arrival of the SDF at the residential compound, it is not clear that the Turkish military took adequate steps to determine the extent to which civilians might be at risk in the attack, Human Rights Watch said. “With another party joining the conflict in Syria, if the armed forces continue to pay inadequate attention to civilian protection, many more civilians are going to be casualties,” Solvang said.
The United States and Russia came closer to an agreement on a breakthrough deal on military cooperation and a nationwide cessation of hostilities in Syria on Friday, but said they still have issues to resolve before an agreement could be announced.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, addressing a joint news conference after more than nine hours of off-and-on talks in Geneva, said teams from both sides would try to finalize details in coming days in the Swiss city. Kerry said the talks with Lavrov had “achieved clarity on the path forward” but together they offered few details on how they planned to renew a February cessation of hostilities and improve humanitarian assistance. “We don’t want to have a deal for the sake of the deal,” Kerry said. “We want to have something done that is effective and that works for the people of Syria, that makes the region more stable and secure, and that brings us to the table here in Geneva to find a political solution.”
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said that the marathon talks with US State Secretary Kerry in Geneva helped to reduce mutual levels of misunderstanding. Both countries will boost their cooperation on Syria, including on the military level, he said. “We have agreed on concrete ways in which we will work with the sides: Russia – with the government and the opposition, that is working with us, the United States – with the opposition, which is cooperating with them,” Lavrov said. In addition to that, the cooperation between Russia’s Khmeimim air base and representatives of the American armed forces in the US base in Jordan is going to be ramped up.
“We have agreed to intensify the bilateral contacts that have somewhat stalled in the last several weeks,” Lavrov said, adding that his is confident that “a regular dialog without any pauses is a key to the realization of all our objectives. It is an achievement that we have been able to reduce areas of misunderstanding and to reduce the level of mutual mistrust between the two countries,” Lavrov said.
Jabhat Fateh al-Sham allegiances a key issue
Russia and the US have agreed on a number of issues as to how boost the peace process on Syria. According to the diplomats, experts from both states will meet in Geneva in the coming days to clarify the details of what has been agreed today. The Russian foreign minister stressed that separation of “moderate forces from the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham militants” is key to reducing the violence in Syria. Lavrov said that Russia briefed the US on a number of rebel groups that it considers terrorist. “In fact, today our American partners for the first time gave us a list of rebel organizations who joined the cessation of hostilities after the US mediation,” Lavrov added. “I don’t see any possibility of assuring a really durable, full-fledged ceasefire without the separation of healthy opposition forces from terrorists,” the minister said. “The understanding of this task between us and our American partners gets increasingly clearer.”
Kerry outlined the steps that can be undertaken to separate the terrorists from the armed opposition, reiterating that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham should be treated like a terrorist group despite the recent rebranding. Drawing a line between the moderate rebels and Al-Nusra remains a “complex question” because the terrorists often share the same territory with rebels, he noted, adding that other nations in the region that support some of the groups should also engage in the process. “We believe there are actions that can be taken to deal with the current construct, some of those involve other nations that are supportive of other opposition groups. Neighbors within the region who have influence over those groups and who have an ability to help separate [JFS and opposition],” he said. Russia and US have been thrashing out the details on how to separate the militant groups from each other for the last several weeks, he added.
“We do not support an independent Kurd initiative”
Both diplomats agreed that the Syrian Kurds should remain in Syria. “We are for a united Syria. We do not support an independent Kurd initiative,” Kerry said, pointing out that the American forces have been engaging in cooperation with “a component” of the Kurdish forces on a “very limited basis.” On his part, Lavrov said, “Kurds must remain a part of the Syrian state, part of resolving the problem, and not a factor that will be used to split Syria apart.” The contacts with the Kurdish minority in Syria were made in a “close cooperation” with Turkey, Kerry said. Turkey considers the Kurdish YPG militia, which is part of the US-backed SDF rebels, one of the targets of its ongoing incursion in Syria. “We understand the sensitivities of our friends in Turkey with respect to this,” Kerry added.
Weighing in on the Turkish “Euphrates Shield” operation in Syria, Lavrov reminded that all countries that had sent military forces to Syria, save for Russia and Iran, are doing so in violation of Syrian sovereignty. “Many countries are represented by their military and army elements on the ground in Syria, but only the Russian and Iranian contingents are staying there upon consent from Damascus,” Lavrov said. “Such is the reality.”
The Russian FM and his US counterpart, John Kerry, met in Geneva to discuss a peaceful solution to resolve the Syrian crisis. They were in talks behind closed doors for over 12 hours on Friday. The meeting of the two top diplomats’ took place at the President Wilson Hotel in Geneva. The two were joined by the UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura. It was not clear during the day whether the UN Syria envoy would join the negotiators to share his views on how to put an end to the five-year war.
The main point of the negotiations is to involve “the prospects of arranging a close coordination of Russia’s and US efforts in fight against terrorist groups in Syria,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said earlier. Meanwhile, the UN has pushed for a weekly 48-hour truce in the fighting that would allow it to provide humanitarian relief, which has been endorsed by Russia. According to the plan, food and supplies would be delivered simultaneously by internationally monitored vehicles to rebel and government-controlled areas.
Assad’s future not part of the current talks
The talks have been complicated since initial meetings in July by new government attacks on opposition groups, and a significant offensive in the southern part of the divided city of Aleppo led by opposition fighters intermingled with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. In the days ahead the technical teams, which include U.S. and Russian military and intelligence experts, will try to figure out ways to separate the opposition groups, backed by the United States and Gulf Arab countries, from the jihadis.
It was unclear after Friday’s meetings whether outstanding issues could all be resolved between Moscow and Washington, which back opposing parties in the Syrian conflict. The United States has insisted that the Syrian air force, which has dropped barrel bombs and chlorine on residential areas, be grounded but Lavrov said on Friday that was not the goal. Assad’s future is not part of the current talks. Instead, discussions are focused on finding an effective and lasting solution to end the violence, which would open negotiations on a political transition in Syria.
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Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) and Manbij Military Council (MMC) forces have seized full control of Manbij after the last remaining Daesh fighters, who had been using civilians as human shields, left, a spokesman for the group said Friday.
SDF were now sweeping the city after the departure of a last remaining group of jihadists who had been holed up in the city. They had freed over 2,000 civilian hostages who had been held by the jihadists, Sharfan Darwish of the SDF allied Manbij Military Council told Reuters. “The city is now fully under our control but we are undertaking sweeping operations,” Darwish said, adding militant sleeper cells in the city were still a threat.
The SDF, with heavy air support from a U.S.-led coalition, said last week they had taken almost complete control of Manbij, where a small number of Daesh fighters had been holed up. The SDF’s offensive, which began at the end of May, aims to remove Deash from areas it controls along the Turkish border.
Earlier the alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters grouped in the SDF said Friday’s operation was “the last operation and the last assault.” Darwish said earlier roughly 100 Daesh fighters were left in the city center using civilians as human shields, some of whom were killed trying to flee. Reuters pictures showed residents being released from an Daesh-held neighborhood on Friday and being welcomed by SDF forces.
Kurdish sources and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors Syria’s five-year-old conflict, later said around 500 cars had left Manbij carrying Daesh members and civilians. They were heading northeast towards Jarablus, a town under Daesh control on the Turkish border, the Observatory said. The convoy carried the final Daesh members leaving the city, under an agreement between the fighting parties that would not be announced officially, Kurdish sources and the monitor said, marking the end of the operation.
The SDF’s campaign quickly captured the countryside surrounding Manbij, but slowed once fighting entered the city. The SDF said it had been avoiding a large-scale assault inside Manbij out of concern for civilians. Dozens of civilians, including children and women from Manbij who had fled the city at the height of the aerial strikes, were killed in suspected U.S. coalition air strikes last month, residents and monitors said.
Manbij’s loss to Daesh is a big blow as it is of strategic importance, serving as a conduit for transit of foreign jihadists and provisions coming from the Turkish border, while SDF emerges as credible army able to take over territory from Daesh without creating major divisions between Syria’s Arabs, Kurds and other minorities.
Former US marine Levi Jonathan Shirley, known by his Kurdish comrades as Agir Servan, was killed on 14 July in offensive to recapture town of Manbij.
An American volunteer fighting alongside Kurdish forces in Syria has been killed during an ongoing offensive to recapture the town of Manbij from Islamic State militants. Levi Jonathan Shirley, known by his Kurdish comrades as Agir Servan, died on 14 July in Manbij, according to a statement on the official website of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), in whose ranks he was fighting. The statement said Shirley, who was born in Nevada, had first travelled to Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria’s north-east in February 2015 and joined the YPG and then returned to the US.
That winter he returned to Syria and rejoined the YPG, helping defend Kurdish-held areas from Islamic State and recently participating in the battle for the northern town of Manbij, which began in May and is backed by a US-led coalition bombing the militants in Iraq and Syria. Shirley was “known for his discipline and sense of responsibility” and his presence among the SDF fighters “always raised the morale of his co fighters” according to the statement. “Comrade Agir was known for his bravery and sense of self-sacrifice.”
Jayson Pihajlic, 30, a former marine, who spent a year in Rojava and fought alongside Shirley in the battle for Shadadi earlier this year described him as a former marine full of life. “He was always full of life, and comedy. The kind of guy that went out of his way to make everyone laugh. Even doing standup comedy shows for us,” said Pihajlic who served two tours in Iraq from 2005-2009.