Syrian Crisis: rebels advance against ISIS, 15 killed in explosion

Syrian Crisis: rebels advance against ISIS, 15 killed in explosion
Turkish army tanks make their way toward the Syrian border town of Jarablus, Syria August 24, 2016

Syrian rebels backed by Turkey and a U.S.-led coalition are closing in on the Islamic State-held village of Dabiq, the site of an apocalyptic prophesy central to the militant group’s ideology.

Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel groups have been pushing southwards into Islamic State’s territory in an operation backed by Turkey since Aug. 24, and have taken villages near Dabiq in recent days. A rebel leader said the plan was to reach Dabiq within 48 hours, but cautioned Islamic State had heavily mined the surrounding area, a sign of its importance to the group.

“If matters proceed as planned, within 48 hours we will be in Dabiq,” Ahmed Osman, commander of the Sultan Murad FSA group, said in a voice recording sent to Reuters.

However, Islamic State has heavily mined the area, making progress around Turkman Bareh slower than in other areas, said Osman, adding that 15 deaths among rebel ranks in the past 24 hours were caused by mines and mortar fire.

The latest fighting marks an escalation since Turkish troops crossed the border into Syria on Aug. 24 to back opposition fighters battling Islamic State. Turkey says the operation is aimed at removing the border threat the jihadists pose.

Turkish special forces and the air force are providing support to the rebels, who are engaged in intense fighting with Islamic State near the towns of Azaz and al-Rai, the military said in a statement. The operation continued on Monday, it said.

The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State is actively supporting the rebels as they advance “to within a few kilometres of (its) weakening stronghold” of Dabiq, Brett McGurk, Washington’s special envoy for the coalition, said in a Tweet.

In 11 air strikes by the U.S.-backed coalition, 13 Islamic State militants were killed. The air operation is designed to push the hardline Islamists back from the Turkish border, the statement said.

The army also fired on Islamic State targets from inside Turkey after the jihadists used rockets to target the Turkish border town of Kilis, damaging buildings, it said.

Turkey says international law gave it the right to enter Syria, in an operation it has dubbed “Euphrates Shield,” to cleanse its border region of Islamic State militants who had launched attacks on Turkish cities.

Washington believes taking Dabiq could strike at Islamic State morale as it prepares to fend off expected offensives against Iraq’s Mosul and Syria’s Raqqa, the largest cities held by the jihadists, officials from a coalition country said.