Russia-backed Syria regime bears down on ISIS transit town

Sunday 05/06/2016

Now caught between regime forces and US-supported fighters

BEIRUT - Russian-backed Syrian regime forces on Monday inched closer to a key stop on a vital Islamic State group supply line, as a twin offensive bore down on the jihadists' northern stronghold.

The advance comes as 17 civilians -- nearly half of them children -- were killed in air raids on a popular market in eastern Syria on the first day of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.

Government fighters entered the scramble for Tabqa at the weekend, when troops backed by Russian air strikes surged north towards the town on the banks of the Euphrates.

ISIS fighters in the town of Tabqa are now caught between the regime forces advancing from the southwest and US-supported Kurdish and Arab fighters pushing in from the north.

The coincidence of the near-simultaneous attacks has raised speculation about possible coordination between the United States and Russia in the anti-IS fight.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), last week launched an assault on Tabqa, its military base, and a nearby dam from the north of Raqa province.

But while they remain 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of Tabqa, the government surged forward on Monday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Russian-backed government fighters are now within 24 kilometres (15 miles) of Lake Assad, the key reservoir in the Euphrates Valley contained by the Tabqa Dam, said the Britain-based Observatory.

Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said regime forces were "reinforcing their positions" south of the town.

"There is a joint operations room in Baghdad where the Iraqis and the Syrians are coordinating with the support of the Americans and the Russians," a source close to the regime said on Monday.

Around Tabqa in particular, the source said, it would be "impossible" for the US and Russia to back their respective ground allies if they did not coordinate.

London-based analyst Matthew Henman stressed that any coordination between Washington and Moscow has so far been "informal".

"There may be an element of informal, top-level coordination to avoid any confusion or inadvertent clashes but full coordination is unlikely," said Henman, who heads IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Research Centre.

Russia last month floated a proposal for joint air strikes with the US against jihadists in Syria, but the offer was swiftly rejected.

Two years after it shot to international infamy after declaring a fundamentalist "caliphate," ISIS is coming under mounting international pressure.

In Iraq, US-backed forces are laying siege to Fallujah, held by ISIS since 2014.

In Syria, ISIS is also under attack in Aleppo province, after SDF fighters crossed the Euphrates near the border with Turkey and pushed west towards the jihadist-held Syrian city of Manbij.

Analysts suspect the SDF's operational focus on Manbij may explain its minimal progress towards Tabqa.

Manbij lies at the heart of ISIS-held territory along the border that US commanders regard as the principal entry point for foreign fighters and funds.

Tabqa lies further along that route, closer to Raqa city.

Syria's conflict has evolved into a complex war involving foreign powers since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

Peace talks to end the five-year war -- which has killed more than 280,000 people and displaced millions -- have stalled and a related ceasefire is in tatters.

On Monday, 17 civilians, among them eight children, were killed in air strikes on a market in Al-Asharah, an ISIS-held town in eastern Deir Ezzor province.

"The market was overcrowded on Monday because people were shopping for Ramadan," Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said, adding the strikes were likely carried out by either Russian or Syrian warplanes.

Neither ISIS nor its rival Al-Qaeda was included in the truce between the regime and non-jihadist rebels which came into effect in February after efforts by Washington and Moscow.

While the battles for the key locations of Tabqa and Manbij intensify, it appears the fight for Raqa city -- which would be a much more symbolic victory -- has taken a backseat.

The US-backed SDF alliance's offensive north of the ISIS stronghold last month started amid much fanfare.

But Henman said "Raqa will likely be one of, if not the last Islamic State bastion to fall in Syria".

"Both Damascus and the Kurds would like to be the ones to do it and would prefer not to see the other in control of it."

Syria expert Fabrice Balanche wrote the offensive was "far from a blitzkrieg that will bring the SDF to the outskirts of Raqa promptly."

"Before the coalition even thinks about launching a final push on the city, it must rally the Arab tribes in the area, some of whom have pledged allegiance to ISIS."