War on ISIS: Critical time for for the group in Syria

Column: Syria's Dabiq and ISIS's end of times

The war against Islamic state group (ISIS) in Syria has reached a critical time as the group is being surrounded in two of his last strongholds, al-Bab city near Aleppo in the east and Raqqa city in the west.

The war against ISIS in Syria has largely been localized in two areas, eastern Syria around Raqqa city and north-western near the Turkish borders.

Turkey’s military operation in Syria named Euphrates Shield, which was launched last August to drive Islamic State militants from its border and prevent Kurdish fighters from gaining ground and strengthening their positions, has changed the balance of power in northern Syria and added more tension to the already complicated area.

Turkey operations started on August 24 alongside allied rebel forces who have managed to retake the ISIS stronghold of Jarabulus, alongside with al-Rai to the west and Dabiq city. Now their operation is focused on al-Bab as the last major stronghold for ISIS in northern Syria.

Turkey also attacked the YPG Kurdish militias ordering them to withdraw from East Euphrates region.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance, which is dominated by the Kurdish YPG militia, is supported by the US as the latter uses them in its war against ISIS.

The SDF launched a campaign with the ultimate aim of capturing Raqqa in November. The first two phases focused on capturing areas to the north and west of Raqqa, part of a strategy to encircle the city.

ISIS surrounded in al-Bab

Al-Bab is 40km northeast of Aleppo, where the government defeated rebels in December – its most important gain in the nearly six-year-old war.

ISIS fighters in the area are now effectively surrounded by the Syrian army from the south and by Turkish-backed rebels from the north, as Damascus and Ankara race to capture the largest stronghold of the armed group in Aleppo province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday.

The British-based war monitor, which tracks developments in Syria’s conflict, added that the army and allied militia had made gains southeast of al-Bab overnight and fought ISIS there on Monday.

Backed by air strikes, they severed a road that links the city to other ISIS-held territory in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces, it said.

A military commander in the alliance fighting in support of Bashar al-Assad said ISIS, was now encircled.

“There is one narrow passage left out of al-Bab,” the commander told the Reuters news agency. Government forces now had most of it “within close firing range”, he said.

Backed by Turkey’s air force, Turkish troops and FSA rebels on Monday clashed with ISIL fighters around the town of Bazaa, northeast of al-Bab, the Observatory said. Turkish-backed forces had briefly captured the town before suicide bombers pushed them out on Saturday.

The Syrian army’s advance towards al-Bab risks triggering a confrontation with the Turkish military and its allies – rebel groups fighting under the Free Syria Army (FSA) banner – which have been waging their own campaign to take the city.

Major offensive on Raqqa

The SDF, backed by US coalition, launched a campaign with the ultimate aim of capturing Raqqa in November. The first two phases focused on capturing areas to the north and west of Raqqa, part of a strategy to encircle the city.

The first phase was pushing from the north. Second one was pushing from the west. And now, in the third phase, the forces are trying to push from the east.

The U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State has boosted support for its Syrian allies, supplying armored vehicles for the first time as they prepare for a new phase in their campaign to capture Raqqa, a spokesman for the militia said last week.

The SDF has begun a new phase of its campaign on Raqqa, aiming to complete its encirclement and sever the road to the group’s strongholds in Deir Ezzor province.

The SDF said in a statement on Saturday that the offensive was getting an “increasing support from the international coalition forces through guaranteeing air cover for our forces’ advances or via the help provided by their special teams to our forces on the battle ground”.

According to Kurdish media, SDF spokesperson Jihan Sheikh Ahmed said they started a new phase to liberate the villages in the east part of Raqqa, with the support of civilians from the region.

“There is also heavy fighting that has been going on north of Raqqa city, where the SDF are backed by coalition air strikes,” a journalist said.

“Also overnight, the coalition forces took out the last bridge crossing the Euphrates. There were five bridges and all of them were taken out.”

The Syrian crisis began as a peaceful demonstration against the injustice in Syria. Assad regime used to fire power and violence against the civilians and led to armed resistance. 450.000 Syrians lost their lives in the past five years according to UN estimates, and more than 12 million have lost their homes.