Monday 23 April 2018

US forces continue cutting off Isil from their well of support

City of Manbij, known as 'Little London' for its cohort of foreign fighters, under siege

Syria: Bashar al-Assad
Syria: Bashar al-Assad

Josie Ensor

US-backed Syrian opposition forces have surrounded the Isil stronghold of Manbij and cut off the self-declared caliphate's main route to the outside world.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by coalition air strikes and US special forces, have seized control of the last road leading into Manbij. Women were seen pulling off their niqabs - the face-covering veils imposed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant - in liberated villages.

Isil fighters have evacuated their own families and let civilians leave, but have not retreated as in previous battles.

Rami Abdulrahman, of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that nearly 160 Isil fighters had died in battles around Manbij - while the SDF (made up of the Kurdish YPG militia and Arab allies) had lost 20 of their own. Its forces now face street-to-street fighting to purge the city.

Manbij will be a huge loss to Isil. It had been a staging post on a supply line between the Turkish border and Raqqa, the extremist group's de facto capital. Half an hour's drive from Turkey, the city had been the first stop for fighters arriving from Europe and the West.

Before the offensive, which began late last month, there were thought to be as many as 100 British fighters in the city, earning it the nickname "Little London". It is difficult to know how many still remain.

Fighting remains fierce across the country. The besieged Syrian town of Daraya was hit with dozens of regime barrel bombs yesterday, hours after receiving its first food aid in nearly four years.

More than 20 bombs were dropped on the Damascus suburb after the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and UN delivered the first aid since November 2014.

Meanwhile at least 20 people were killed in triple attacks yesterday - claimed by Isil near one of Syria's holiest shrines.

Footage from the blast site on the outskirts of Damascus showed flames and smoke engulfing a main commercial thoroughfare near the Shia Sayeda Zeinab shrine.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said the death toll was likely to rise as scores of wounded civilians were in a critical condition. In a statement released through the Amaq news agency, Isil said that the attack involved two suicide bombers, as well as a car laden with explosives.

The shrine draws thousands of Iraqi and Afghan Shia militia recruits before they are sent to fight predominantly Sunni rebel groups trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

This is Isil's fourth attack on the area this year. The Sunni group is an avowed enemy of the region's Shia Muslims, whom it considers heretical.

The heavily garrisoned area near the shrine is also a well-known stronghold of Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah group, one of Mr Assad's chief allies.

As Syria's war approaches its sixth year, the Syrian army has all but collapsed, leaving Mr Assad reliant on Iran-backed foreign troops and a network of militias across the country.

Reports yesterday suggested that the government had freed dozens of prisoners on the condition they would head to key fronts and fight.


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