U.S. forces seen near Turkish border for patrol in northeast Syria: witness, SDF source

U.S. forces seen near Turkish border for patrol in northeast Syria: witness, SDF source
BEIRUT (Reuters) – U.S. forces in armored vehicles were seen on Thursday near the Syria-Turkey border in a part of northeastern Syria where they had not been observed since the United States announced a decision to withdraw from the area, a witness said.

A military source from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) described the movement as a patrol running between the towns of Rmeilan to Qahtaniyah, 20 km (12 miles) to the west. The source said it would “not be a one-time” event.

The head of the SDF’s media office could not immediately be reached for comment. The witness saw the vehicles outside the town of Qahtaniyah, roughly 6 km (4 miles) south of the border.

President Donald Trump announced this month that U.S. forces would withdraw from northeastern Syria, where the United States had allied with the SDF to oust Islamic State forces.

In response to a question about the reported troop movement, Colonel Myles Caggins, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said, “All Coalition military operations are de-conflicted with other forces operating in the region”.

“We have begun repositioning Coalition troops to the Deir al-Zor region, in coordination with our SDF partners, to increase security (and) continue our mission to defeat (Islamic State) remnants,” Caggins added.

The U.S. military said last week it was reinforcing its position in Syria with additional assets, including mechanized forces, to prevent oil fields from being taken over by remnants of the Islamic State militant group or others.

Trump said last week a small number of U.S. troops would remain in the area of Syria “where they have the oil”. Syria’s oil wells are principally located in Deir al-Zor province, well south of the Turkish-Syrian border.

(Reporting by Rodi Said in northeast Syria; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Tom Perry and Will Dunham)

Shells fall in northeast Syria despite five-day ceasefire agreement

Smoke rises over the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain as seen from the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 18, 2019. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

Shells fall in northeast Syria despite five-day ceasefire agreement
CEYLANPINAR, Turkey (Reuters) – Shelling could be heard at the Syrian-Turkish border on Friday morning despite a five-day ceasefire agreed between Turkey and the United States, and Washington said the deal covered only a small part of the territory Ankara aims to seize.

Reuters journalists at the border heard machine-gun fire and shelling and saw smoke rising from the Syrian border battlefield city of Ras al Ain, although the sounds of fighting had subsided by mid-morning.

The truce, announced on Thursday by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence after talks in Ankara with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, sets out a five-day pause to let the Kurdish-led SDF militia withdraw from an area controlled by Turkish forces.

The SDF said air and artillery attacks continued to target its positions and civilian targets in Ral al Ain.

“Turkey is violating the ceasefire agreement by continuing to attack the town since last night,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali tweeted.

The Kurdish-led administration in the area said Turkish truce violations in Ras al Ain had caused casualties, without giving details.

The deal was aimed at easing a crisis that saw President Donald Trump order a hasty and unexpected U.S. retreat, which his critics say amounted to abandoning loyal Kurdish allies that fought for years alongside U.S. troops against Islamic State.

Trump has praised the deal, saying it would save “millions of lives”. White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham told Fox News the ceasefire was successful even if halting fighting “takes time”.

Turkey cast it as a complete victory in its campaign to control a strip of territory stretching hundreds of miles along the border and more than 30 km (around 20 miles) deep into Syria, to drive out fighters from the YPG, the SDF’s main Kurdish component.

“As of now, the 120-hour period is on. In this 120-hour period, the terrorist organization, the YPG, will leave the area we identified as a safe zone,” Erdogan told reporters after Friday prayers in Istanbul. The safe zone would be 32 km deep, and run “440 km from the very west to the east,” he said.

But the U.S. special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, said the agreement covered only a smaller area where Turkish forces were already operating, without giving details of how far along the border Washington believed it stretched.

The Kurds said it was limited to a small strip between two border towns that have seen the bulk of the fighting: Ras al Ain and Tal Abyad, just 120 km away.

RUSSIA, IRAN FILL VACUUM

With the United States pulling its entire 1,000-strong contingent from northern Syria, the extent of Turkey’s ambitions is likely to be determined by Russia and Iran, filling the vacuum created by the U.S. retreat.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Moscow and Tehran, has already taken up positions in territory formerly protected by Washington, invited by the Kurds.

Jeffrey acknowledged that Turkey was now negotiating with Moscow and Damascus over control of areas where Washington was pulling out, which were not covered by the U.S.-Turkish ceasefire agreement.

“As you know we have a very convoluted situation now with Russian, Syrian army, Turkish, American, SDF and some Daesh (Islamic State) elements all floating around in a very wild way,” Jeffrey said.

“Now, the Turks have their own discussions going on with the Russians and the Syrians in other areas of the northeast and in Manbij to the west of the Euphrates,” he said. “Whether they incorporate that later into a Turkish-controlled safe zone, it was not discussed in any detail.”

LIFTING SANCTIONS?

The joint U.S.-Turkish statement released after Thursday’s talks said Washington and Ankara would cooperate on handling Islamic State fighters and family members held in prisons and camps, an important international concern.

Pence said U.S. sanctions imposed on Tuesday would be lifted once the ceasefire became permanent.

In Washington, U.S. senators who have criticized the Trump administration for failing to prevent the Turkish assault in the first place said they would press ahead with legislation to impose sanctions against Turkey.

The Turkish assault began after Trump moved U.S. troops out of the way following an Oct. 6 phone call with Erdogan.

It has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with – according to Red Cross estimates – 200,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters potentially abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political storm at home for Trump.

Turkey says the “safe zone” would make room to settle up to 2 million Syrian refugees it is currently hosting, and would push back the YPG militia which it deems a terrorist group because of its links to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey.

A Turkish official told Reuters that Ankara got “exactly what we wanted” from the talks with the United States.

(Additional reporting by Daren Butler and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Writing by Jonathan Spicer and Dominic Evans, Editing by Peter Graff and Timothy Heritage)

Syria rebel group upbeat on Douma talks but denies deal

People walk on rubble of damaged buildings in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

BEIRUT/MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Syrian rebel group said on Friday that U.N.-mediated talks with Russia were “heading in the right direction” but denied it had agreed to evacuate the last insurgent-held enclave in eastern Ghouta.

The town of Douma, controlled by the Jaish al-Islam rebel group, is the last patch of eastern Ghouta still held by insurgents who have been routed in a ferocious offensive by the Russian-backed Syrian military that began in February.

Its recovery would seal a major victory for President Bashar al-Assad, crushing the last big rebel stronghold near Damascus seven years into a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions.

Thousands of people – fighters from other rebel factions, their families and other civilians – have been leaving for northwestern Syria from other parts of eastern Ghouta in convoys of buses that have been given safe passage to Idlib province.

Jaish al-Islam has so far refused such an evacuation, saying it amounts to forced demographic change by Assad and his allies.

The Russian news agency Interfax quoted the Russian military’s general staff as saying it had reached agreement with insurgents in Douma to leave, without saying where they would go.

“Agreement was reached today with the leaders of illegal armed groups on the departure in the near future of the rebels and their family members from the town of Douma,” it cited Sergei Rudskoy, an official with the general staff, as saying.

The Jaish al-Islam military spokesman quickly denied the report. “Our position is still clear and firm and it is rejecting forced displacement and demographic change in what remains of eastern Ghouta,” Jaish al-Islam military spokesman Hamza Birqdar said in a message posted on his Telegram feed.

But Mohammad Alloush, the group’s political official, said the talks over Douma were moving in the right direction and the “chances (of agreement) are getting stronger day after day”.

Alloush, who is based outside Syria, made the comments in a report whose accuracy he confirmed to Reuters.

Douma is surrounded by Syrian government forces. There are tens of thousands of civilians in the town.

Syrian state TV said a deal had nearly been reached for Jaish al-Islam to leave Douma to the Idlib, citing preliminary information.

The government offensive in eastern Ghouta has killed more than 1,600 civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says. It said a total of 144,000 people have now been displaced from eastern Ghouta.

While thousands have gone to rebel-held territory near the Turkish border, the bulk of the displaced have fled the fighting to shelters in government-held areas near eastern Ghouta.

(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova in Moscow and Tom Perry in Beirut; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Thousands more leave enclave in Syria’s Ghouta as Assad takes back control

A convoy of buses that carry rebels and their families waits at Harasta highway outside Jobar, in Damascus, Syria March 26, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

By Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – Thousands of people departed eastern Ghouta for Syrian rebel territory near the Turkish border on Tuesday, the third group to leave under a deal brokered by Russia to surrender the enclave near Damascus to the Syrian government.

Some 7,000 people – most of them fighters and their families – left on 100 buses in the early hours of the morning, to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. More buses drove into eastern Ghouta ahead of a further evacuation.

Rebels have been leaving Ghouta in batches with their families since Thursday, accepting safe passage to the Idlib region in northwestern Syria after they were beaten into retreat in a fierce assault by the Russian-backed Syrian army.

It marks the biggest defeat for the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad since insurgents were driven from eastern Aleppo in 2016, underscoring his unassailable military position in the seven-year-long conflict.

“We faced two choices: go to Idlib or make peace with the regime,” said Sakhr Yousef, a 24-year-old fighter with the Failaq al-Rahman faction as he was preparing to leave eastern Ghouta with his wife and four young siblings.

“Making peace with the regime is very difficult, making peace with those who bombed us with criminal Russia,” he added in a voice message to Reuters, referring to Assad’s main backer in the conflict.

The rebels being evacuated on Tuesday are leaving from a tract of territory centered around the towns of Arbin, Ain Tarma and Zamalka that was controlled by Failaq al-Rahman rebels.

The last remaining insurgent-held area in Ghouta is the town of Douma. The United Nations said it is highly concerned for 70,000-78,000 people it said were trapped inside.

The Islamist group that controls Douma, Jaish al-Islam, is in talks with Russia that have yet to yield a result.

DISPLACED PEOPLE SUBJECTED TO “SCREENING PROCESS”

Backed by Russia and Iran, the government has repeatedly forced rebels to surrender areas and withdraw to Idlib. The opposition has called this a policy of “demographic change” aimed at forcing dissidents out of Syria’s main cities.

State television, broadcasting from the outskirts of Arbin, showed buses moving along a dusty road through a wasteland of heavily damaged buildings.

A correspondent with Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV said it could take four to five days to evacuate the tens of thousands of people who had agreed to leave Arbin, Ain Tarma and Zamalka.

Hezbollah, a heavily armed Lebanese group backed by Iran, has fought on Assad’s side during the war.

The Russian news agency TASS said 13,190 rebels had left eastern Ghouta in the last three days.

Many tens of thousands of people have fled eastern Ghouta this month into areas controlled by the Syrian government.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said more than 80,000 people had left formerly besieged parts of eastern Ghouta as control shifted since March 9.

The displaced “have to proceed to collective shelters and are not permitted to leave, until they have undergone a screening process and are able to prove a sponsor”, OCHA said in a situation report.

Syrian state TV said the army freed 28 people who had been held captive by militants in Arbin. The Observatory said their release was part of the deal agreed by rebels.

The Syrian military split eastern Ghouta into three separate zones during its assault that began on Feb. 18 and has killed more than 1,600 people, according to the Observatory.

The government says the offensive is securing Damascus from insurgent mortar fire that regularly used to hit the capital including its Old City.

In addition to their foothold in the northwest, anti-Assad rebels still hold a chunk of territory along the southern frontier with Jordan and Israel, and enclaves near Damascus, Homs and Hama.

(Additional reporting Katya Golubkova; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Friend or foe? Assad quietly aids Syrian Kurds against Turkey

Kurdish female fighters of the Women's Protection Unit (YPJ) hold their weapons as they sit in the Sheikh Maksoud neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria February 7, 2018. Picture taken February 7, 2018.

By Laila Bassam and Tom Perry

ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syria’s U.S.-backed Kurds are getting indirect help from an unlikely source in their war against Turkey in the northwestern region of Afrin: President Bashar al-Assad.

Pro-government forces and Kurdish-led forces have fought each other elsewhere in Syria and Damascus opposes the Kurds’ demands for autonomy. But in Afrin they have a common enemy and a mutual interest in blocking Turkish advances.

Turkey, which regards the Kurdish YPG militia in Afrin as a threat on its southern border, launched an assault on the region last month. Seeking to shield Afrin, the Kurds asked Damascus to send forces into action to defend the border.

The government shows no sign of doing so, but it is providing indirect help by allowing Kurdish fighters, civilians and politicians to reach Afrin through territory it holds, representatives of both sides told Reuters.

Assad stands to gain while doing little.

The arrival of reinforcements is likely to sustain Kurdish resistance, bog down the Turkish forces and prolong a conflict that is sapping the resources of military powers that rival him for control of Syrian territory.

For the United States, it is yet another complication in Syria’s seven-year-old war, and a reminder of how its Syrian Kurdish ally must at times make deals with Assad even as it builds military ties with the United States.

Lacking international protection, the Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria say they have reached agreements with Damascus to allow reinforcements to be sent to Afrin from other Kurdish-dominated areas — Kobani and the Jazeera region.

“There are different ways to get reinforcements to Afrin but the fundamental route is via regime forces. There are understandings between the two forces … for the sake of delivering reinforcements to Afrin,” Kino Gabriel, spokesman for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said.

While the Kurds depend on Assad to reach Afrin, Kurdish sources say they also enjoy leverage over Damascus because it needs their cooperation to source grain and oil from areas of the northeast under Kurdish control.

A commander in the military alliance fighting in support of Assad said “the Kurds have no option but coordination with the regime” to defend Afrin.

“The Syrian regime is helping the Kurds with humanitarian support and some logistics, like turning a blind eye and allowing Kurdish support to reach some fronts,” said the commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

TURKISH CAMPAIGN MOVES SLOWLY

The Turkish military is making slow gains nearly three weeks into the operation it calls “Olive Branch”.

Ankara views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade insurgency in Turkey and is regarded as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.

The United States has relied on the YPG as a vital ground component of its war against Islamic State, and has backed the group in other Kurdish-run regions in northern Syria along the border with Turkey.

But U.S. forces are not in Afrin, so have been unable to shield Afrin from the attack by Turkey, its NATO ally.

The Kurds meanwhile accuse Russia of giving a green light for the Turkish attack by withdrawing observers it deployed in Afrin last year.

The Afrin war marks another twist in the complicated story of relations between Assad and the Syrian Kurdish groups, spearheaded by the YPG, that have carved out autonomous regions in northern Syria since the war began in 2011.

The YPG controls nearly all of Syria’s frontier with Turkey. But Afrin is separated from the bigger Kurdish-controlled region further east by a 100 km-wide zone controlled by the Turkish military and its Syrian militia allies.

For much of the war, Damascus and the YPG have avoided confrontation, at times fighting common enemies, including the rebel groups that are now helping Turkey attack Afrin.

But tensions have mounted in recent months, with Damascus threatening to march into parts of eastern and northern Syria captured by the SDF with support from the U.S.-led coalition.

Underlining that, pro-Syrian government forces attacked the SDF in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, drawing coalition air strikes overnight that killed more than 100 of the attackers, the coalition said.

“The regime has allowed the YPG to bring people into Afrin, while attacking it east of the Euphrates (River). I think that is indicative of the state of relations right now,” said Noah Bonsey, International Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst on Syria.

He added: “There is still a significant gap between the YPG and regime positions on the future of northeastern Syria.”

FIGHTING FOR AFRIN

The main Syrian Kurdish groups remain wedded to their vision of a Syria where they enjoy autonomy in a form of federalism that is at odds with Assad’s determination to recover all Syria.

Each side has allowed the other to maintain footholds in its territory. In Kurdish-held Qamishli, the government still controls the airport. In the Sheikh Maqsoud district of Aleppo, a government city, Kurdish security forces patrol the streets.

Scores of Kurds from Sheikh Maqsoud have gone to Afrin to support the fight, Kurdish officials there said. The short journey requires movement through areas held by the government or its Iran-backed Shi’ite militia allies.

“Of course people went from Sheikh Maqsoud – in the hundreds – to bear arms and defend Afrin,” said Badran Himo, a Kurdish official from Sheikh Maqsoud.

“Around 10 of them were martyred (killed),” he told Reuters as Kurdish security forces held a rally to commemorate one of the dead.

Earlier this week, witnesses say a civilian convoy of hundreds of cars drove to Afrin from other Kurdish-held areas in a show of solidarity.

The Syrian government has ignored appeals by the Kurdish authorities to guard the Syrian border at Afrin.

“We tried to convince them, via the Russians, to at least protect the borders, to take a position, but we did not reach a result,” Aldar Khalil, a top Kurdish politician, told Reuters.

“If they don’t protect the borders, then at least they don’t have the right to block the way for Syrian patriots who are protecting these borders, regardless of other domestic issues.”

(Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

U.S.-led forces strike Syrian troops, prompting emergency U.N. meeting

A civil defence member carries a dead child in a site hit by what activists said were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria

By Angus McDowall and Andrew Osborn

BEIRUT/MOSCOW (Reuters) – U.S.-led coalition air strikes reportedly killed dozens of Syrian soldiers on Saturday, endangering a U.S.-Russian brokered ceasefire and prompting an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting as tensions between Moscow and Washington escalated.

The United States military said the coalition stopped the attacks against what it had believed to be Islamic State positions in northeast Syria after Russia informed it that Syrian military personnel and vehicles may have been hit.

The United States relayed its “regret” through the Russian government for what it described as the unintentional loss of life of Syrian forces in the strike, a senior Obama administration official said in an emailed statement.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in an emailed statement that Russian officials did not voice concerns earlier on Saturday when informed that coalition aircraft would be operating in the strike area.

The 15-member Security Council met on Saturday night after Russia demanded an emergency session to discuss the incident and accused the United States of jeopardizing the Syria deal.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, chastised Russia for the move.

“Russia really needs to stop the cheap point scoring and the grandstanding and the stunts and focus on what matters, which is implementation of something we negotiated in good faith with them,” Power told reporters.

She said the United States was investigating the air strikes and “if we determine that we did indeed strike Syrian military personnel, that was not our intention and we of course regret the loss of life.”

When asked if the incident spelled the end of the Syria deal between Moscow and Washington, Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said: “This is a very big question mark.”

“I would be very interested to see how Washington is going to react. If what Ambassador Power has done today is any indication of their possible reaction then we are in serious trouble,” Churkin told reporters.

Moscow cited the strikes, which allowed Islamic State fighters to briefly overrun a Syrian army position near Deir al-Zor airport, as evidence that the United States was helping the jihadist militants.

“We are reaching a really terrifying conclusion for the whole world: That the White House is defending Islamic State. Now there can be no doubts about that,” the RIA Novosti news agency quoted Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as saying.

Power said Zakharova should be embarrassed by that claim. Churkin said Russia had no “specific evidence” of the United States colluding with Islamic State militants.

Zakharova said the strikes threatened to undermine the ceasefire in Syria brokered by Russia, which has been aiding Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war, and the United States, which has backed some rebel groups.

The Russian Defence Ministry said U.S. jets had killed more than 60 Syrian soldiers in four air strikes by two F-16s and two A-10s coming from the direction of Iraq.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group with contacts across Syria, cited a military source at Deir al-Zor airport as saying at least 90 Syrian soldiers had been killed.

Australia also participated in the strikes and the Australian Department of Defence offered its condolences to the families of Syrian soldiers killed or wounded in the incident.

The ceasefire, which took effect on Monday, is the most significant peacemaking effort in Syria for months, but has been undermined by repeated accusations of violations on both sides and by a failure to bring humanitarian aid to besieged areas.

Apart from the U.S. and Russian involvement, Assad is supported by Iran and Arab Shi’ite militias, while Sunni rebels seeking to unseat him are backed by Turkey and Gulf Arab states.

All the warring parties are also sworn enemies of Islamic State, whose territory extends along the Euphrates valley from the Iraqi border, including around Deir al-Zor, up to land near Syria’s frontier with Turkey.

In its sixth year, the conflict has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, displaced half of Syria’s pre-war population, prompted a refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe and inspired a wave of jihadist attacks across the world.

Syria’s army said the U.S.-led strikes, which took place at around 5 p.m. local time (1400 GMT) were “conclusive evidence” of U.S. support for Islamic State, calling them “dangerous and blatant aggression”.

The U.S. military said in its statement that Syria was a “complex situation” but that “coalition forces would not intentionally strike a known Syrian military unit”.

Islamic State said via its Amaq news channel it had taken complete control of Jebel Tharda, where the bombed position was located, which would have allowed it to overlook government-held areas of Deir al-Zor.

The city’s airport and some districts have been entirely surrounded by Islamic State since last year, with the airport providing their only external access.

However, Russia and Syrian state media said the Syrian army later recaptured positions it had lost. The Observatory monitoring group said at least 30 Islamic State fighters were killed in heavy Russian air strikes during that fighting.

The incident also threatens to undermine proposed joint targeting by the United States and Russia of Islamic State and some other jihadist groups across Syria.

SHAKY TRUCE

Earlier on Saturday, Russia and Syrian rebels cast doubt over the prospects for the increasingly shaky ceasefire, with Moscow saying the situation was worsening and a senior insurgent warning that the truce “will not hold out”.

While the ceasefire has reduced fighting, some violence has persisted across Syria. Meanwhile, there has been little movement on promised aid deliveries to besieged areas and both sides have accused the other of bad faith.

The U.N. told Reuters aid trucks which had been expected to move to Aleppo on Sunday morning, were once again being delayed.

“Obviously the humanitarian community is very frustrated by this. We have hoped to go today with the convoys,” David Swanson, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. “We stand ready to begin the response effort as soon as we get the green light.”

Russia’s Defence Ministry said conditions in Syria were deteriorating, adding that it believed the ceasefire had been breached 199 times by rebels and saying the United States would be responsible if it were to collapse.

After the Deir al-Zor attack, it said Moscow had told the United States to rein in the Syrian opposition and make sure it did not launch a new offensive, adding that it had informed Washington about a concentration of rebels north of Hama.

Insurgents say they only reluctantly accepted the initial deal, which they believe is skewed against them, because it could relieve the dire humanitarian situation in besieged areas they control, and blamed Russia for undermining the truce.

“The truce, as we have warned, and we told the (U.S.) State Department – will not hold out,” a senior rebel official in Aleppo said, pointing to the continued presence of a U.N. aid convoy at the Turkish border awaiting permission to enter.

Rebels have also accused Russia of using the ceasefire to give the Syrian army and allied Shi’ite militias a chance to regroup and deploy forces ready for their own offensives.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Katya Golubkova and Andrew Osborn in Moscow, Olesya Astakhova in Bishkek, Phil Stewart in Split, Croatia, Patricia Zengerle in Washington, Michelle Nichols in New York, Humeyra Pamuk and Yesim Dikmen in Istanbul and Harry Pearl in Sydney.; Editing by Dominic Evans and Toby Chopra)

U.S.-backed forces in final sweep against Islamic State in Syria’s Manbij

A woman embraces a Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter after she was evacuated with others by the SDF from an Islamic State-controlled neighbourhood of Manbij

BEIRUT (Reuters) – U.S.-backed forces battling Islamic State near the Turkish border in northern Syria said on Friday they had launched a final assault to flush the remaining jihadists out of the city of Manbij.

The Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), with air support from a U.S.-led coalition, said last week they had taken almost complete control of Manbij, where a small number of IS fighters had been holed up.

The SDF’s offensive, which began at the end of May, aims to remove Islamic State from areas it controls along the Turkish border, which was for years a route through which the group moved fighters and weapons.

The SDF said it was now conducting a final sweep of the city before they officially announce the operation is complete.

Friday’s attack is “the last operation and the last assault,” said Sharfan Darwish, a spokesman for the Syrian Arab and Kurdish forces.

Darwish said roughly 100 Islamic State fighters were left in the center of the city, and that they were using civilians as human shields. Several civilians were killed trying to flee, he said.

Reuters pictures showed residents being released from an Islamic State-held neighborhood on Friday and being welcomed by SDF forces.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors Syria’s five-year conflict, later said around 500 cars had left Manbij carrying Islamic State members and civilians. They were heading northeast toward Jarablus, a town under Islamic State control on the Turkish border, the Observatory said.

The convoy carried the final Islamic State members leaving the city, under an agreement between the fighting parties that would not be announced officially, the Observatory said, marking the end of the operation.

The SDF could not immediately be reached for comment on that report.

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 people were killed in suspected U.S. coalition air strikes last month, residents and monitors said.

(Reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi, John Davison and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Larry King and Robin Pomeroy)

Islamic State forces Syria rebels to retreat from border area

Civilians inspect a site hit by an airstrike in the rebel-controlled city of Idlib

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Tom Perry

AMMAN/BEIRUT (Reuters) – U.S.-backed Syrian rebels were pushed back from the outskirts of an Islamic State-held town on the border with Iraq and a nearby air base on Wednesday after the jihadists mounted a counter- attack, two rebel sources said.

The New Syria Army rebel group had launched an operation on Tuesday aimed at capturing the town of Al-Bukamal from Islamic State.

One rebel source said Islamic State fighters had encircled the rebels in a surprise ambush. They had suffered heavy casualties and weapons had been seized by the jihadists, the source said.

“The news is not good. I can say our troops were trapped and suffered many casualties and several fighters were captured and even weapons were taken,” he said.

A spokesman of the New Syria Army, Muzahem al Saloum, confirmed the group’s fighters had retreated. “We have withdrawn to the outlying desert and the first stage of the campaign has ended,” Saloum told Reuters.

Despite the retreat, Saloum said the fighters had at least succeeded in evicting Islamic State from large swathes of desert territory around the town.

Islamic State affiliated Amaq news agency had earlier said it had killed 40 rebel fighters and captured 15 more in a counter-attack at the Hamadan air base north west of the city.

The operation aiming to capture Al-Bukamal was meant to add to pressure on Islamic State as it faces a separate, U.S.-backed offensive in northern Syria aimed at driving it away from the Turkish border.

The New Syria Army was formed some 18 months ago from insurgents driven from eastern Syria at the height of Islamic State’s rapid expansion in 2014. Rebel sources say it has been trained with U.S. support.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the group’s offensive against Islamic State was being mounted with the backing of Western special forces and U.S.-led air strikes.

Islamic State’s capture in 2014 of Al-Bukamal, just a few kilometers (miles) from the Iraqi frontier, effectively erased the border between Syria and Iraq. Losing it would be a huge symbolic and strategic blow to the cross-border “caliphate” led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State has moved up a gear this month, with an alliance of militias including the Kurdish YPG launching a major offensive against the militant group in the city of Manbij in northern Syria. In Iraq, the government this week declared victory over Islamic State in Falluja.

Syrian rebel sources say the rebel force has received military training in U.S.-run camps in Jordan, but most of their training was now being conducted in a main base at al-Tanf, a Syrian town southwest of Al-Bukamal at the border with Iraq.

The New Syria Army’s base in al-Tanf was hit twice earlier this month by Russian air strikes, even after the U.S. military used emergency channels to ask Moscow to stop after the first strike, U.S. officials say.

(Reporting by Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Richard Balmforth)