US-backed rebels bid to close off Isil supply route from Turkey
US-backed rebels have launched an offensive to clear Isil from the Turkish border and close the last entry route for European volunteers joining the terrorist movement.
Control of the territory between the Syrian towns of Manbij and Marea is a key prize in the fight against Isil.
Known as the Manbij Pocket, the capture of this area would isolate Isil from the Turkish frontier, shut down the last funnel for foreign fighters - including European citizens - to reach the group, and clear the way for an assault on Raqqa, which serves as Isil's de facto capital.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed rebel group, seized nine villages yesterday, bringing them within 20km of Manbij, an area so popular among British Isil fighters that it has been dubbed 'Little London'.
Nasser Haj Mansour, an adviser with the SDF, said the alliance's fighters were heading from the Tishreen Dam on the Euphrates towards Manbij, describing Isil's resistance as "fierce and intense".
US officials insist the SDF's forces are dominated by Syrian Arabs. But contacts in the area said they were likely to be mainly Kurdish fighters, a fact that is likely to anger Turkey.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government views the main Kurdish rebel group in Syria, the People's Protection Units, as an extension of the PKK Kurdish Workers' Party, which is viewed as a terrorist movement. Turkish sources said that any contribution to the US-led operation was "out of the question".
Disagreements between Washington and Ankara over which proxy forces should be mobilised to fight Isil have already slowed operations in northern Syria. Last week, Isil capitalised on the rift by attacking a string of villages near Marea, splitting the last patch of rebel territory along the border and causing tens of thousands of civilians to flee.
The Pentagon has already deployed more than 200 American special forces soldiers alongside the SDF.
Yesterday, the US-led coalition's warplanes carried out air strikes in support of the Kurdish rebels near Manbij.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, three children were among 15 civilians killed in the pre-dawn air raids.
According to Airwars, an independent monitoring group, the US-led coalition has killed at least 1,200 civilians during 22 months of air strikes against Isil. (© Daily Telegraph London)