US-supported Syrian fighters as well as Russian-backed Syrian regime forces are homing in on the power center of “Islamic State.” The aim is to seize supply lines from Turkey and pave the way for the capture of Raqqa.
A coalition of Syrian Arab and Kurdish forces backed by US-airstrikes continued their advance towards the strategic “Islamic State” (IS)-controlled city of Manbij on Sunday.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) offensive to seal an IS-held section of the Turkish border and cut off the extremist group’s de-facto capital Raqqa hinges on taking Manbij, a city on the west side of the Euphrates that acts as a major transit point for IS fighters and supplies.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said SDF forces had advanced to within five kilometers of Manbij.
US Special Forces are embedded with SDF fighters to coordinate and call in dozens of airstrikes on IS positions. SDF has occasionally clashed with Syrian regime forces but on the whole there is a tacit understanding between it and the regime.
The operation has been complicated by Turkish objections to fighters belonging to the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG crossing to the west of the Euphrates.
The YPG are considered the best fighters against IS but are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with which Ankara has waged a three-decade long war and considers a terrorist organization.
The SDF is composed mostly of Syrian Kurdish fighters, but also includes Turkmen, Arab and Assyrian Christian units.
The offensive in Manbij is led mostly by Arab forces due to both Turkish sensitivities and the belief they will be better able to hold territory that is traditionally inhabited by Arabs. US Special Forces have been coordinating the training of Arab units and providing weapons in anticipation of the offensive.
The push to the west of the Euphrates comes some two weeks after a rare visit to northern Syria by US Central Command Commander General Joseph L. Votel, who met with SDF forces to assess their strength. The visit prompted speculation the US-backed forces may be preparing for a large scale offensive.