Syria army takes Aleppo town from IS after intense fighting

DAMASCUS: Syria’s army on Sunday seized a key town from the IS group in the east of Aleppo province, a military source said, nearing its goal of expelling the group from the region. The capture of Maskana, on the western bank of Lake Assad, comes as part of a major Russian-backed military operation that began in mid-January to drive the group from Aleppo province. “Military units continue to advance in the east of Aleppo province and track down groups of IS terrorists,” a military source cited by Syrian state media said.
“Security and stability has been restored to the strategic town of Maskana and a number of areas,” the source added.
Maskana was a key target for the Syrian army, and lies around 15 km from neighbouring Raqa province, where the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are expected to soon launch an assault on the IS bastion of Raqa city. Syria’s army is not so far expected to play a role in that operation.
A military source said the “Maskana area is the last important civilian population centre on the eastern border of Aleppo province before Raqa province”.
“Whoever controls Maskana controls the axes running between Aleppo city and Raqa city,” he added.
IS presence in the east of Aleppo province is now “at its end”, he added.
The Syrian army has captured more than 200 towns and villages since it launched its operation in the east of Aleppo province, after retaking the provincial capital in December.
IS now holds just a handful of “scattered villages that can easily be captured in the east and southeast of Aleppo province, in desert areas,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, Director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said, according to the state-run news agency Anadolu, that the battle to capture the IS group’s Syrian bastion Raqa started two days ago,
Yildirim appeared to contradict comments on Saturday from the Kurdish-Arab alliance battling the militants that the push into the northern Syrian city would “begin in a few days”.
“The long-planned Raqa operation began late on June 2,” after the US informed Turkey of the operation, Yildirim said, without providing further details.
He was referring to the latest thrust in a drive by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to close in on Raqa that began in November.
The SDF is a Kurdish-Syrian Arab alliance including fighters from the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara views as a “terror group” linked to Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) separatists inside Turkey. SDF seized a town and dam to the west of Raqa last weekend.
“We will begin in a few days,” said Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, spokeswoman for the SDF’s “Wrath of the Euphrates” operation to capture Raqa, speaking on Saturday.
The Raqa operation has been a deep source of tension between Washington and Ankara because of US support to YPG, which has included air cover, assistance from special forces on the ground and weaponry.
The US said last week it began sending arms to Kurdish fighters, which Turkey said was “extremely dangerous” and urged Washington to reverse the decision.
Washington views the YPG as the most effective fighting force against IS.
But Yildirim said its Nato ally had downplayed its support for YPG, referring to the relationship as “tactical cooperation”, according to comments reported by Anadolu on Sunday. — Agencies