U.S.-backed force says it has taken positions in Islamic State Syria camp

FILE PHOTO: Injured Islamic state militants are seen in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Issam Abdallah/File Photo

BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-backed fighters said they had taken positions in Islamic State’s last enclave in eastern Syria and air strikes pounded the tiny patch of land beside the Euphrates River early on Monday, a Reuters journalist said.

Smoke rose over the tiny enclave as warplanes and artillery bombarded it. Another witness said the jihadists had earlier mounted a counter attack.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia said in an update on Monday that tens of militants had been killed during what it called fierce clashes, and one SDF fighter had been injured. It said Islamic State had sent four suicide bombers to points close to SDF fighters.

Late on Sunday, an SDF spokesman, Mustafa Bali, said on Twitter that several enemy positions had been captured and an ammunition storage area had been blown up.

The enclave resembles an encampment, filled with stationary vehicles and rough shelters with blankets or tarpaulins that could be seen flapping in the wind during a lull in fighting as people walked among them.

Backed by air power and special forces from a U.S.-led coalition, the SDF has pushed Islamic State from almost the entire northeastern corner of Syria, defeating it in Raqqa in 2017 and driving it to its last enclave at Baghouz last year.

Late on Sunday, the Kurdish Ronahi TV station aired footage showing a renewed assault on the enclave, with fires seen to be raging inside and tracer fire and rockets zooming into the tiny area.

The SDF has waged a staggered assault on the enclave, pausing for long periods over recent weeks to allow mostly women and children who are families of suspected fighters to pour out.

Women and children leaving have spoken of harsh conditions inside, under coalition bombardment and with food supplies so scarce some resorted to eating grass.

Former residents also say hundreds of civilians have been killed in months of heavy aerial bombing by the coalition that have razed many of the hamlets in the area along the Iraqi border.

The coalition says it takes great care to avoid killing civilians and investigates reports that it has done so.

Last month, the SDF said it had found a mass grave in an area it captured. Former residents say those buried were victims of coalition air strikes.

The SDF and the coalition say the Islamic State fighters inside Baghouz are among the group’s most hardened foreign fighters, although Western countries believe its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has left the area. The group issued a propaganda film from inside the enclave last week calling on its supporters to keep the faith.

While Islamic State’s defeat at Baghouz will end its control of inhabited land in the third of Syria and Iraq that it captured in 2014, the group will remain a threat, regional and Western officials say.

(Reporting by a Reuters journalist in Baghouz; Writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Robert Birsel, Catherine Evans and Frances Kerry)

U.S.-backed Syrian forces call for 1,500 coalition troops to stay

U.S. Army General Jospeh Votel, head of Central Command, visits an airbase at an undisclosed location in northeast Syria, February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Phil Stewart

By Phil Stewart

AIRBASE IN NORTHEAST SYRIA (Reuters) – The commander of U.S.-backed forces in Syria called on Monday for about 1,000 to 1,500 international forces to remain in Syria to help fight Islamic State and expressed hope that the United States, in particular, would halt plans for a total pullout.

The remarks by Mazloum Kobani, the commander-in-chief of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, followed talks with senior U.S. generals at an airbase in northeast Syria and offered perhaps the most comprehensive view to date of his requests for an enduring military assistance from the U.S.-led coalition.

“We would like to have air cover, air support and a force on the ground to coordinate with us,” Kobani told a small group of reporters who traveled with the U.S. military to an airbase at an undisclosed location in northeast Syria.

With U.S. help, the Kurdish-led fighters are poised to seize Islamic State’s last holdout in eastern Syria. At the height of its power four years ago, Islamic State held about a third of both Iraq and Syria in a self-proclaimed Caliphate.

But Islamic State still has thousands of fighters, who, now dispersed, are expected to turn to guerrilla-style attacks.

Kobani said there was discussions about perhaps French and British troops supporting the SDF in Syria. But he stressed he also wanted at least “a partial group of American forces,” who now number more than 2,000 in Syria, to stay as well.

U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, head of Central Command, said after the talks with Kobani that he was still carrying out President Donald Trump’s December order for a complete U.S. withdrawal of American forces.

“We certainly understand what they would like us to do, but of course that’s not the path we’re on at this particular point,” Votel told reporters.


Asked about any discussions on a continuing U.S. presence in Syria, Votel said: “So the discussion really isn’t about U.S. forces staying here. We’ve looked at potentially what coalition (forces) might be able to do here.”

Trump’s surprise December decision to withdraw all the U.S. troops from Syria has triggered deep concern among U.S. allies about the risk of an eventual resurgence of Islamic State.

But the pullout raises an even more immediate threat to Kobani’s SDF, which fears that Turkey will make good on threats to attack them. He warned of a “new genocide” in SDF controlled areas of Syria.

Kobani thanked Trump for publicly stating his intent to protect the SDF but said: “I want him to live up to his word.”

Without a deal with the U.S.-led coalition, experts say Kobani may have to strike a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to avoid a Turkish sweep or a resurgence of Islamic State.

Votel is recommending continued support to the SDF as long as it keeps up pressure on Islamic State militants.

But Army Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera, who is the commander of the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, cautioned on Sunday that the United States would be legally unable to support the SDF if they partnered with Assad or Assad’s Russian backers.

Kobani stressed he was not seeking a military deal with


Perhaps sensing an opportunity to stoke doubt among the Kurdish communities, Assad warned on Sunday the United States would not protect those depending on it.

“We say to those groups who are betting on the Americans, the Americans will not protect you,” he said. “The Americans will put you in their pockets so you can be tools in the barter, and they have started with (it).”

Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine, is among the U.S. lawmakers expressing concern the U.S. withdrawal could deal a devastating blow to Kurdish forces and warned that any sense of U.S. betrayal could cast a long shadow for years to come.

“It will chill future potential groups from assisting us if we’re going to treat the people who have been so stalwart on our behalf in this way. It is very dangerous in terms of national security,” he has said.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Alison Williams)

Putin says Islamic State has seized 700 hostages in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a signing ceremony following a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia October 17, 2018. Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Islamic State (IS) militants had seized nearly 700 hostages in part of Syria controlled by U.S.-backed forces and had executed some of them and promised to kill more.

Speaking in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, Putin said the hostages included several U.S. and European nationals, adding that Islamic State was expanding its control in territory on the left bank of the River Euphrates controlled by U.S. and U.S.-backed forces.

Putin did not specify what the militants’ demands were.

“They have issued ultimatums, specific demands and warned that if these ultimatums are not met they will execute 10 people every day. The day before yesterday they executed 10 people,” Putin told the Valdai discussion forum in Sochi.

The TASS news agency reported on Wednesday that IS militants had taken around 700 hostages in Syria’s Deir-al Zor province after attacking a refugee camp in an area controlled by U.S.-backed forces on Oct.13.

TASS said the militants had kidnapped around 130 families and taken them to the city of Hajin.

(Reporting by Gleb Stolyarov in Sochi; Additional reporting by Polina Devitt in Moscow; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

Iran says planned U.S.-backed force inside Syria would fan war

Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces place flags at Naim Square after liberating Raqqa, Syria October 18, 2017.

LONDON (Reuters) – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday a new U.S.-backed, 30,000-strong force inside Syria constituted a breach of international law and Syrian sovereignty, joining Syria, Turkey and Russia in a vehement rebuke of the plan.

On Sunday, the U.S.-led coalition said it was working with its Syrian militia allies, the mainly Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to set up a force that would operate along the borders with Turkey and Iraq, as well as within Syria.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responded by vowing to crush the new force and drive U.S. troops from Syria. Strong Syria ally Russia called the plans a plot to dismember Syria and place part of it under U.S. control, and Turkey described the force as a “terror army.”

“The new plan that the Americans have in mind for Syria is violation of international laws and a plot against sovereignty and security of Syria and region,” Rouhani was quoted by state media as saying during a meeting with the speaker of the Syrian parliament Hammouda Youssef Sabbagh.

Sabbagh was in Tehran for a conference of parliamentary speakers.

Iran supports Assad in the nearly seven-year civil war against rebel forces and Islamic State militants, sending weapons and soldiers.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said earlier on Tuesday that the planned U.S.-backed force inside Syria would “fan the flames of war” and raise tensions.

“The U.S. announcement of a new border force in Syria is an obvious interference in the internal affairs of this country,” Qasemi was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.

Qasemi urged all U.S. forces to leave Syria immediately.

The United States is at the head of an international coalition using air strikes and special forces troops to aid fighters on the ground battling Islamic State militants in Syria since 2014. It has about 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif discussed the conflict in Syria in a phone conversation, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Russia says will target U.S.-backed fighters in Syria if provoked

A fighter from Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) sits in a military tank in Raqqa, Syria September 16, 2017. REUTERS/ Rodi Said

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia warned the United States it would target areas in Syria where U.S. special forces and U.S.-backed militia were operating if its own forces came under fire from them, which it said on Thursday had already happened twice.

Russia was referring to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias fighting with the U.S.-led coalition, which Moscow said had diverted from the battle for control of Raqqa to Deir al-Zor, where Russian special forces are helping the Syrian army push out Islamic State militants.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the SDF had taken up positions on the eastern banks of the Euphrates with U.S. special forces, and had twice opened fire with mortars and artillery on Syrian troops who were working alongside Russian special forces.

“A representative of the U.S. military command in Al Udeid (the U.S. operations center in Qatar) was told in no uncertain terms that any attempts to open fire from areas where SDF fighters are located would be quickly shut down,” Major-General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement.

“Fire points in those areas will be immediately suppressed with all military means.”

The Russian warning underscores growing tensions over Syria between Moscow and Washington. While both oppose Islamic State (IS), they are engaged, via proxies, in a race for strategic influence and potential resources in the form of oilfields.

In eastern Syria’s Deir al-Zor province, IS is battling two separate offensives with the SDF on one side and the Syrian army and its allies on the other.



In a sign of escalating tensions, the Russian Defense Ministry this week accused U.S. spies of initiating a jihadi offensive against government-held parts of north-west Syria on Tuesday.

The ministry, in a Wednesday evening statement, said 29 Russian military policemen had been surrounded by jihadist as a result and that Russia had been forced to break them out in a special operation backed with air power.

“According to our information, U.S. intelligence services initiated the offensive to halt the successful advance of government troops to the east of Deir al-Zor,” said Colonel-General Sergei Rudskoi.

The Syrian army, backed by Russian war planes, has captured about 100 km (160 miles) of the west bank of the Euphrates this month, reaching the Raqqa provincial border on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Syrian troops also crossed to the eastern side of the river on Monday where the SDF has been advancing.

The convergence of the rival offensives has increased tensions in Deir al-Zor.

The U.S.-backed militia said on Saturday they had come under attack from Russian jets and Syrian government forces, something Moscow denied.

On Monday, the SDF warned against any further Syrian army advances on the eastern riverbank, and Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that the waters of the Euphrates had risen as soon as the Syrian army began crossing it, suggesting this could only have happened if upstream dams held by the U.S.-backed opposition had been opened.


(Reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Gareth Jones and Hugh Lawson)


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)

Russia failed to heed U.S. call to stop targeting Syrian rebels

A still image taken from video footage, released by Russia's Defence Ministry on November 19, 2015, shows a Russian military jet taking off at Hmeimim airbase in Syria.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Russia warplanes struck at rebels battling Islamic State militants, including forces backed by the United States, in southern Syria on Thursday, a senior U.S. defense official said.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, criticized the Russian air strikes near al-Tanf and said no Russia or Syrian ground forces were in the area at the time.

“Russia’s latest actions raise serious concern about Russian intentions,” the official said.

“We will seek an explanation from Russia on why it took this action and assurances this will not happen again.‎”

British-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said warplanes had struck a meeting of U.S.-backed forces fighting against Islamic State in al-Tanf village, near the al-Tanf border crossing with Iraq, killing two fighters and wounding four others.

It said it was unclear whose planes had carried out the attack, however.

Washington has consistently refused to join forces with Russia in Syria against Islamic State ever since Moscow launched its campaign of air strikes in September last year, accusing it of acting solely to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The United States has called on Assad to step down.

Communication between the U.S. and Russian militaries on Syria has been limited to contacts aimed at avoiding an accidental clash as they carry out rival bombing campaigns and small numbers of U.S. forces operate on the ground.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Editing by Angus MacSwan


U.S. backed forces appeal for aid for hundreds fleeing IS

Fighters of the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) carry their weapons as they walk in the western rural area of Manbij, in Aleppo

By Rodi Said and Lisa Barrington

NEAR MANBIJ, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) – – U.S.-backed forces waging an offensive against the Islamic State-held city of Manbij in northern Syria appealed for international assistance for those fleeing the fighting on Tuesday as the forces tightened their encirclement of the city.

The SDF push comes at the same time as other enemies of Islamic State, including the governments of Syria and Iraq, also launched major offensives on other fronts, in what amounts to the most sustained pressure on the militants since they proclaimed their caliphate in 2014.

The Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance launched the advance two weeks ago to seize Islamic State’s last territory on the Syria-Turkey border and cut the self-declared caliphate off from the world.

“In the areas we control we have tried to take care of the needs of the internally displaced persons. But we are not able to cover their needs,” Sharfan Darwish of the SDF-allied Manbij Military Council told Reuters in Beirut by telephone.

“The international community must turn their attention to the people which have been liberated from Daesh (Islamic State),” he said, adding that there were no international humanitarian organizations working in the area.

Darwish said the Manbij civil council was bringing supplies from the northern, Syrian YPG militia-controlled city of Kobani to displaced persons, but this was not enough.

The SDF is a U.S.-backed group formed last year which includes the powerful Kurdish YPG militia and Arab fighters.

They are one of a number of sides fighting in Syria’s complex civil war now in its sixth year. The conflict pits rebels against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Syrian government forces and some rebel groups are also fighting separate battles against Islamic State. The SDF has largely avoided fighting against government forces and focuses on fighting Islamic State.


Around 1,100 people have already fled Islamic State-held Manbij this week into SDF-held territory, braving Islamic State sniper fire on the city’s edges, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Many who had fled the city told Reuters that Islamic State fighters were trying to prevent people leaving. One person told Reuters Islamic State was arresting people suspected of collaborating with the SDF.

Having seized control of the last route into Manbij on Friday, the SDF has yet to enter the town.

“We are closing in on Manbij,” Darwish said, adding that fighting continues on the city’s outskirts.

The Observatory said the SDF has taken about 105 villages and farms around Manbij since the start of the operation.

Since the start of the offensive on May 31, 49 civilians have died as a result of the U.S.-led coalition air strikes in and around Manbij and 19 civilians had been killed by Islamic State, the Observatory said.

It also said at least 246 Islamic State fighters and 29 SDF fighters have been killed.

Syrian government and allied forces are trying to advance against the Islamic State south-west of their de facto capital in Syria, Raqqa. Fighting on Monday between Ithriya and al Tabqa killed 11 government and 17 Islamic State, the Observatory said.

Syrian state media broadcast pictures of bloodied bodies lying in the desert sand which it said showed 16 Islamic State fighters killed by government and allied forces in the fighting.

Syrian government and allied forces have been supported by Russian air power since September last year, an intervention which helped turn the tide of the war in Assad’s favor.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington in Beirut and Rodi Said near Manbij, Syria, editing by Peter Millership)

Syrian & U.S. backed forces advance separately against IS

Special forces from the Syria Democratic Forces gather in Haj Hussein village, after taking control of it from Islamic State fighters, in the southern rural area of Manbij, in Aleppo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian government troops backed by Russian air power moved to within 25 km (15 miles) of an Islamic State-held town in Raqqa province on Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, as state media reported air strikes against the jihadists in the area.

In a separate simultaneous campaign against Islamic State in Syria, U.S.-backed militias captured more territory from the group near the city of Manbij in Aleppo province, a spokesman for the forces told Reuters. The Observatory said they were now 2 km from the Islamic State-held city.

The offensives both got underway last week and are targeting Islamic State in areas of major strategic importance to its foothold in Syria, where it controls swathes of land up to the Iraqi border.

They are taking place at the same time as an assault by the Iraqi army against Falluja, an Islamic State bastion close to Baghdad. The simultaneous assaults by a myriad of enemies on farflung fronts amount to some of the greatest pressure Islamic State has faced since declaring its caliphate to rule over all Muslims from Iraq and Syria two years ago.

The Syrian army’s advance into Raqqa province, which has not been announced by the military, is initially targeting the Islamic State-held town of Tabqa, according to the Observatory and pro-Damascus media sources.

Raqqa province is a major base of operations for Islamic State and home to its de facto capital, Raqqa city.

Syrian state-run TV station Ikhbariya said on Tuesday the Syrian air force had targeted Islamic State positions south of Tabqa in the Rasafa area, destroying vehicles equipped with machine guns.

The Syrian military could not immediately be reached for comment. A military source told Reuters on Monday the army had advanced to the edge of Raqqa province, from where it could move in several directions against Islamic State.

The Observatory, citing its activists on the ground, said Islamic State had sent weapons and fighters from Raqqa city to Tabqa.

The separate U.S.-backed campaign that got underway last week aims to dislodge Islamic State from its last foothold at the Syrian-Turkish frontier and shut off its main access route to the outside world for material and manpower.

It is being fought on the ground by militias including the Kurdish YPG and allied Arab groups, which together formed an alliance last year known as the Syria Democratic Forces. It has proven to be the first effective fighting force allied to Washington during five years of multi-sided civil war in Syria.

Sharfan Darwish, spokesman for the Manbij Military Council that is part of the U.S.-backed force, said: “We are advancing on all fronts of our assault.”

The United States has consistently rejected the idea of partnering in the fight against Islamic State with President Bashar al-Assad, saying he should leave power. Some of Assad’s opponents have accused the Kurdish YPG of coordinating with his government’s forces, which the Kurds deny.

(Reporting by Tom Perry; editing by Peter Graff)