Middle East

Syria Kurds seize town from ISIS, near its 'capital'

Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighters stand near an ISIS flag in Tal Abyad town, Raqqa governorate, June 16, 2015. REUTERS/Rodi Said

BEIRUT: Kurdish-led forces in Syria seized a town from ISIS Tuesday after capturing a military base overnight, aided by U.S.-led airstrikes in some of the most dramatic gains yet against the militants.

The Kurdish march deep into the heart of ISIS territory follows their capture of a town on the Turkish border last week, halting the momentum of militants who had seized major towns in both Syria and Iraq last month.

The Kurdish YPG-led forces had taken full control of Ain Issa, said Redur Xelil, a spokesman for the group. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports on the war, said ISIS fighters had completely withdrawn from the town.

Overnight, the advancing forces took control of the nearby Liwa-93 military base, a strategic objective which ISIS had captured last year from government forces.

The advance to Ain Issa brings the Kurdish forces and smaller Syrian rebel groups fighting alongside them to just 50 km (30 miles) from Raqqa, ISIS' de facto capital, from which it rules over a "caliphate" across much of Syria and Iraq. Xelil said an assault on the city was not currently on the agenda.

The United States and its Arab and Western allies launched an air campaign against ISIS last year after the fighters proclaimed their "caliphate" to rule over all Muslims.

The YPG fighters have emerged as the most credible ally of the U.S.-led campaign on the ground in Syria, where Washington has fewer friends than in Iraq. Xelil described the U.S.-led air support as "excellent."

In a separate battle, the Syrian military and militias fighting alongside it have gained ground to the northwest of the city of Palmyra, which ISIS captured from government control last month, according to the Observatory and a source in Syria briefed on the situation.

The West and its Arab allies have shunned the idea of partnering President Bashar aAssad in the fight against ISIS.

The YPG advance gathered pace last week when the Kurds, in partnership with smaller rebel groups under the banner of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, captured Tal Abyad at the border, cutting an ISIS supply route from Turkey.

Coordination between the YPG and the U.S.-led alliance has deepened since they first joined forces to defend the town of Kobani at the Turkish border, defeating ISIS fighters in January after four months of battle there.

The Observatory said the aim of the YPG-led attack was to seize control of a highway running through Ain Issa which links the northeastern province of Hassakeh with Aleppo.

Asked whether the de facto ISIS capital was now a target, Xelil said: "Raqqa is a Syrian city, like Tal Abyad and Kobani, and all Syrians want it freed of Daesh terror. But at the current time it is not included in our agenda."

Daesh is an Arabic name for ISIS.

The group has so far put up little resistance to the latest YPG-led advance. A Pentagon spokesman said last week ISIS had appeared to "crack" at Tal Abyad.

Brett McGurk, the deputy U.S. special presidential envoy to the anti-ISIS alliance, said on Twitter that YPG and FSA fighters were "making important gains" south of Tal Abyad, aided by coalition air support.

The Observatory said government forces had also advanced against ISIS to the west of Palmyra, home to Roman ruins that are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

ISIS fighters consider such monuments to be idols that must be destroyed. They have planted explosives in the ruins, the Observatory reported Saturday, raising concern the site could meet the same fate as monuments plundered and razed by the group in Iraq.

"We cannot yet say that this is the battle of Palmyra. It is a battle to fortify the regime's defensive lines," said the source in Syria briefed on the situation.





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