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ISIS in Syria: US-backed Forces Target Jihadist Stronghold on Turkish Border

US-backed forces are threatening to cut the last link Isis has to the outside world by launching an offensive against the town of Manbij west of the Euphrates.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a Kurdish-led group supported by US airstrikes – has launched the attack on the town close to the Turkish border in an attempt to cut Isis off from an area it uses to move weapons and fighters across the border.

US airstrikes have destroyed bridges between Manbij and the Turkish border showing that the US is backing the attack despite Turkey’s past objections to the Syrian Kurds extending their control of northern Syria just south of the Turkish frontier.

An SDF commander told a Kurdistan24 television correspondent embedded with the SDF operation against Manbij that their forces had already crossed the Euphrates and were close to the town. He said that “our forces reached the outskirts of Manbij and are now holding a series of hills about 15 kilometres from it. We can see its grain silos from the top of the hills.” Isis has retreated from some 20 villages in the area.

The SDF includes Sunni Arab tribal units as well as Turkman and Christians but its military strength depends on the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). In the last few days, they have started a multi-pronged attack against Isis along the Euphrates between its de facto Syrian capital Raqqa and Jarabulus on the Turkish border.

One axis of attack is directed at Syria’s largest dam and hydroelectric power station at Tabqa to the west of Raqqa. This is an industrial town, once largely inhabited by Allawites and Baathists who got jobs there because of their loyalty to the Syrian regime, though they have long ince fled. Isis captured Tabqa airbase in 2014 and massacred 160 captured government soldiers.

Isis is likely to fight hard to retain control of the territory linking Raqqa and north Aleppo province which is fertile, heavily populated and has access to the Turkish border. Turkey originally forbade the Syrian Kurds or the SDF from crossing the Euphrates and, when they did so five months ago, warned them not to take Manbij.

The US was wary of offending Turkey and did not bomb in support of the SDF advance at that time, but now appears to have changed its policy. The US has long urged Turkey to deploy 30,000 troops to block Isis members from entering Turkey via a 60-mile-long section of the Syrian-Turkish frontier held by Isis. The US may have been be worried by recent Isis military successes in this area against US and Turkish backed Syrian armed opposition groups.

Isis is also under intense pressure at Fallujah in Iraq where its forces are hemmed into the beleaguered city where they are greatly outnumbered by the Iraqi security forces and the Shia paramilitaries. The Iraqi army has in theory opened humanitarian corridors for the 50,000 civilians trapped in Fallujah to escape, but they have been detaining men leaving the city to see if they are Isis members. Given that the government will suspect anybody who has remained in Fallujah long after the majority of its 300,000 people have fled of having Isis sympathies or connections, many now being detained may be held for a long time.

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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