US-backed Syrian forces pierce into Raqa city

BEIRUT/DAMASCUS: A US-backed alliance broke into the western part of the IS group’s stronghold Raqa on Saturday, the force and a monitor said, opening up a second front inside the Syrian city.
Backed by US-led coalition air strikes, the Syrian Democratic Forces have spent months tightening the noose on IS-held Raqa and entered the city for the first time earlier this week from the east.
On Saturday, they pierced into Raqa from the west, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
“The SDF captured the western half of the Al Sabahiya neighbourhood and are reinforcing their positions there,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
“They then advanced north to the adjacent district of Al Romaniya and are fighting IS there,” he said.
A statement from the SDF’s Operation Wrath of the Euphrates said its fighters stormed Al Romaniya on Saturday and were locked “in fierce fighting inside the district”.
Held by IS since 2014, Raqa emerged as a key hub for the militants’ operations in Syria, neighbouring Iraq, and beyond.
Army says it holds fifth of key desert territory: Syrian pro-government forces now hold more than a fifth of the country’s strategic desert, the army said on Saturday, after reaching the eastern border with Iraq for the first time since 2015.
The desert, known as the “Badiya”, extends over some 90,000 square kilometres from central Syria to the borders with Iraq and Jordan to the east and southeast.
Since 2015, much of the Badiya has been held by the IS group, but Syria’s army has been chipping away at it for months.
On Friday, they reached the country’s eastern frontier with Iraq for the first time in two years.
“In cooperation with our allies, our units have captured a large number of locations and strategic positions in the Badiya, amounting to an area of 20,000 square kilometres,” the general command of the army said on Saturday.
“This important achievement represents a strategic shift in the fight against terrorism and a launching pad to broaden military operations in the Badiya and along the borders with Iraq,” said the statement, distributed on state media.
The army had thus completed the “first phase” of its Badiya operations, the statement said.
State news agency SANA had reported on Friday that army units set up positions northeast of the At-Tanaf garrison, currently used by the US-led coalition bombing IS to train Syrian rebels to fight the militants.