US-backed Syrian force likely to attack Tabqa soon

Author: Reuters, AFPFri, 2017-03-24ID: 1490302417764338300BEIRUT/GENEVA: US-backed Syrian militias are expected to attack soon a Daesh-held dam and air base west of the Syrian city of Raqqa, their spokesman said on Thursday. The operation is part of an accelerating campaign to capture the hard-line group’s stronghold.Meanwhile, the Syrian Army and fighters, including militant groups, fought in the capital Damascus and north of Hama on Thursday after the insurgents’ biggest offensive for months, underscoring the bleak prospects for peace talks which resume later in the day.The US-led coalition against Daesh airdropped Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters some 15 km from the dam at the town of Tabqa on Tuesday night. The SDF established a base from which to advance on the Tabqa area.Tabqa is around 40 km west of Raqqa. Daesh captured the Tabqa Dam, also known as the Euphrates Dam, and the nearby air base at the height of its expansion in Syria and Iraq in 2014.SDF spokesman Talal Silo said the SDF forces had yet to reach Tabqa town or the nearby airport and dam. He described these as three strategically important targets and said the SDF planned to repair and use the airport once it was captured.“Today or at most tomorrow there will be an attack operation on these three areas,” he said in a phone interview.He said that once captured, the air base runway would be repaired and “in the near future our forces will use this airport.”“In all the areas under our control, we do not have an airport that can receive planes,” he said. “The coalition planes will benefit from the airport.”The SDF has been working since November to encircle Raqqa city with support from US special forces and air strikes by the US-led coalition against Daesh. The SDF comprises the powerful Kurdish YPG militia and allied Arab fighters.The campaign appears to be gathering pace as an overlapping, US-backed effort in Iraq is drawing closer to driving Daesh from Mosul.The YPG controls swathes of northern Syria, including nearly all of the cities of Hasaka and Qamishli, home to an airport that remains under Syrian government control. Meanwhile, Syrian rivals resume UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva on Thursday, with escalating violence and deadlock on key issues dimming hopes of a breakthrough.UN envoy Staffan de Mistura tried to strike an optimistic note when the previous round ended last month.He insisted government and opposition negotiators had agreed on a “clear agenda” and that “everything is ready” for the talks to move forward.On the agenda for this round are issues of governance — a political transition, the constitution and elections, as well as counter-terrorism at the request of Damascus.But an already-fragile cease-fire has deteriorated further in recent days after fighters and militants launched two surprise offensives on government positions in Damascus and central Hama province.Syrian President Bashar Assad’s air force has responded with raids on opposition targets, further threatening negotiations which have yielded little in four previous rounds.The UN talks aim to find a solution to end a six-year conflict that has killed more than 320,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with protests against Assad’s regime.A stalemate persists over most of the toughest issues, notably Assad’s fate, with the opposition insisting he quit power and the government declaring the president’s future off limits for discussion.And analysts say the chances of compromise may be at their lowest point ever, following the regime’s military victories.“There’s no hope in my view,” Syria specialist Thomas Pierret said.“The regime continues to gain ground… There’s no reason for it to make the slightest concession.”Since Russia’s military intervention in support of Assad in 2015, the regime has gained the upper hand, retaking the former opposition bastion of Aleppo late last year.The main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) arrived in Geneva on Wednesday. The government delegation led by Syria’s UN envoy Bashar Al-Jaafari was also due to land in the Swiss city.De Mistura is scheduled to be in Ankara on Thursday as part of a pre-talks diplomatic tour of the key powers shaping the conflict, which has also included trips to Moscow and Riyadh.The UN’s deputy Syria envoy, Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy will meet the rival camps in Geneva “to prepare the round ahead,” the UN said.So far, there is no plan for the government and opposition delegates to meet face-to-face.De Mistura has said he wants to unify the HNC with two smaller opposition camps — known as the Moscow and Cairo platforms — before presenting the government with a single opposition delegation.But unity among the opposition has remained elusive due to disagreements over core issues like Assad’s future.Fierce clashes persist in Syria ahead of renewed peace talksThe offensive seems unlikely to reverse 18 months of steady military gains by the government, culminating in December’s capture of the opposition enclave in Aleppo, but it has shown the army’s difficulty in defending many fronts simultaneously.Increased fighting in recent weeks despite a cease-fire brokered in December by Russia and Turkey casts further doubt on peacemaking efforts in Geneva, where talks resume on Thursday after making little progress in recent rounds.“We hope to see some serious partner on the other side of the table,” Salem Al-Muslet, spokesman for the opposition’s High Negotiating Committee (HNC), said in Geneva.Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, which is backed by Russia, Iran and Shiite militias, is also attending the Geneva talks. Both sides accuse each other of violating the cease-fire.In Damascus, the intensity of clashes around the industrial zone in Jobar, on the edge of the central districts of the capital, increased after midnight, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, reported on Thursday.A military media unit run by the government’s ally Hezbollah reported clashes early on Thursday in Jobar and a heavy bombardment aimed at opposition positions and movement in the area.State TV showed a reporter speaking in the capital’s Abassiyin district at morning rush hour, but the road appeared quiet with only one or two cars and a few pedestrians, and with the repeated sound of blasts in the background.Near Hama, fighters spearheaded by the militant Tahrir Al-Sham alliance, but also including groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, made new advances overnight and fighting continued on Thursday, the Observatory said.Fighters had gained control over 11 towns and villages in the first 24 hours of their offensive after it began late on Tuesday and advanced to within a few kilometers of the city of Hama, it said. On Wednesday, a Syrian military source said reinforcements were headed to the Hama front.
Main category: Middle-East

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