Iraq News

North Syria natives join fight to drive out ISIL

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an Arab-Kurd alliance, participate in the second phase of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates. [Photo courtesy of Syrian Democratic Forces]

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an Arab-Kurd alliance, participate in the second phase of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates. [Photo courtesy of Syrian Democratic Forces]

The second phase of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates has seen hundreds of new recruits join the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an Arab-Kurd opposition alliance fighting the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL), officials said.

Most are natives of northern Syria, with many hailing from al-Raqa province, the ISIL stronghold that is the target of the ongoing operation, they told Diyaruna.

On December 10th, the SDF announced the launch of the second phase of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates . The military operation, which began November 5th, aims to liberate the western part of al-Raqa province.

It also seeks to isolate al-Raqa city and besiege ISIL inside it as the first part of a plan to drive the group from the city and its surrounding areas.

A large number of Arab factions are now fighting to liberate al-Raqa alongside Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ), SDF platoon commander Ghassan Ibrahim told Diyaruna.

These include the Syrian Elite Forces, the military arm of al-Ghad al-Souri (Syria's Tomorrow), Suqour al-Raqa Brigade (Hawks of al-Raqa) and Thuwar al-Raqa Brigade (al-Raqa Revolutionaries), Ibrahim said.

The operation relies on "ethnic Arab forces, because they hail from the region and are very knowledgeable of its terrain, geographical nature and the places that could be used as hideouts by ISIL elements", he said.

Arab fighters from the area also can provide information on corridors suitable for moving civilians safely out of the area of operations, he added.

"Hundreds of Arab youth from the region have recently joined SDF," he said, noting that 1,500 fighters from villages and towns in the region joined the alliance at the start of the second phase of the operation.

'Best chance of success'

Al-Raqa province comprises various religious and ethnic groups, Ibrahim said, each of which want to fight ISIL and believe "their best chance to succeed is to join the SDF, which provides full and complete co-ordination between all fighting factions and supplies them with the required logistical support".

The SDF also provides co-ordination with coalition forces in terms of military support and the conduct of airstrikes that pave the way for the liberation of areas which are falling from ISIL control in quick succession, he said.

"Fighting under the banner of the SDF ensures the seriousness of the effort on the ground, with focus on total discipline and training and equipping the fighters, which is absolutely essential to achieving the military operation’s objectives," he added.

Al-Raqa native and SDF recruit Anas Mazhar told Diyaruna that he and dozens of residents of villages under ISIL control in the rural areas to the west of al-Raqa city closely followed the first phase of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates.

"The SDF’s task ends with the expulsion of ISIL elements and clearing the liberated areas of mines, explosives and weapon remnants," Mazhar said.

Local administration post ISIL

"The administration of the liberated areas will be in the hands of the people of the region themselves, through local councils that oversee the meeting of all needs and security and logistical matters, as happened in Manbij," Mazhar said.

Administration also can be implemented through the tribes, which have their own system and customs with regard to governance, he noted.

The position of the Arab tribes is "clear and explicit, and it is to fully support Operation Wrath of the Euphrates, particularly as hundreds of Arab tribesmen are currently participating in the campaign", he added.

"Fighters involved in Operation Wrath of the Euphrates are not interested in any talk about Arabs or Kurds," said Farhan Askar, commander of a Suqour al-Raqa Brigade unit, which fights under the SDF banner.

"Every one of them regards the other as a Syrian first, and a son of his region second," he told Diyaruna. "They all are convinced that the primary, and only, objective is to liberate the region from ISIL, free its residents and lift the injustice they are suffering."

Protecting civilians

Wahid al-Khalaf, an SDF fighter who hails from the newly liberated village of Khalaf al-Bek in rural al-Raqa, said 25 villages and farms have been liberated to the north-west of al-Raqa city.

The current push is focused on al-Thawra dam near al-Raqa city, he said, adding that SDF fighters are only about 30 kilometres away from it at present.

"The SDF’s advance in this region is being made in a deliberate manner to protect the civilians," he added.

The majority of the inhabitants of these villages "are responding to the security imperatives and leaving their homes and heading towards SDF positions ", he said.

SDF fighters are entering their areas and conducting full sweep operations to clear them of mines and explosives, he said, which will enable residents to return to their homes immediately after the conclusion of the operation.

"The forces are helping the temporarily displaced by providing them with food and medical supplies and then facilitating their return to their villages and homes once the danger is lifted," he said.

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