‘Semblance of normal life’: Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor slowly recovers from ISIS siege

The lifting of the siege around the city of Deir ez-Zor by the Russian Air Force-backed Syrian Army has tremendously eased the life of people there, but it’s still just a semblance of normal life, as the full eradication of Islamic State terrorists still lies ahead.

READ MORE: Drone footage of Deir ez-Zor shows city recovering from 3-year ISIS siege (EXCLUSIVE VIDEOS)

Before the siege was lifted, Deir ez-Zor had been under a tight blockade and constant shelling from Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) terrorists for more than three years. Supplies were delivered solely by air, through airdrops by military cargo planes and infrequent and daring helicopter flights, used mainly for delivering reinforcements to the enduring garrison of the besieged enclave.

Siege survivors told RT’s Murad Gazdiev that the staple diet for the past year was za’atar (a mixture of herbs usually used as spice) mixed with water because the ingredients for proper bread were scarce. Zaatar is a traditional Middle Eastern spice mainly made of oregano, so the main ration of many residents in Deir ez-Zor was effectively dried grass with water.

Prices of the most common food items had soared in the city, which was cut off from the other government-held areas. People sold everything of value, even their cars and property, to secure basic survival for their families. A local man told RT how he sold his car when the siege had just begun for 50 kilograms of sugar, which was then available only on the black market.

No fresh fruit or vegetables were available to the city’s residents and many young children, born during the siege have never tasted them before this September, when the IS blockage was finally broken by the Syrian Army with Russian air support.

Syrian and Russian humanitarian aid was immediately sent to the exhausted residents when the regaining of control over the strategic Deir ez-Zor–Palmyra highway allowed establishing a steady land supply route to the city.

As humanitarian aid began flowing into the Syrian city, life began to return to something like normalcy, but Gazdiev reports that it is still only a semblance of peace, with the dangers of war being very close. Some 15 percent of the city is still under IS control. While the complete liberation for the city is expected within several weeks, there are still swathes of land controlled by IS in the surrounding Deir ez-Zor province, which the Syrian forces aim liberate in full.

Some 87.4 percent of Syria is now free of Islamic State terrorists, the Russian Defense Ministry said on Thursday.

Courtesy, RT

Syrian Christians advance against IS in de-facto capital Raqqa

The battle for ‘Islamic State’ stronghold Raqqa has reached its final stages, according to the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US-backed multi-ethnic alliance fighting IS. Karlos Zurutuza reports from Raqqa.

Ein Blick von einer der beiden Positionen der MFS in Raqqa (DW/K.Zurutuza)

Getting to the headquarters of Syriac fighters in Raqqa involves driving mostly across a desert. The route is exhausting and not entirely safe but, for the time being, it’s the only chance to avoid the area still under the control of the Islamic State (IS).

Once in the south western outskirts of the city, you just have to follow your ear: the base of the Syriac Military Council (MFS) is right next to an American base from which mortar is launched every five minutes.

Commander Matai Hannah has just returned from there with a bit of food – his “Ready to Eat Meat” combat ration.

“Their base is just behind that wall. I wouldn’t mind taking you there, but I’m sure they will not like it,” Hannah told DW.

Matai Hannah (right) on a tank (DW/K.Zurutuza)Commander Hannah (right) is part of the Syriac Military Council that fights against IS

At 22, Hannah has generously paid for his rank with a lost kidney, the scar that criss-crosses his chest and a bullet in the head which only grazed him.

That didn’t happen in Raqqa though, but in his native town of Qamishli – 600 kilometers (370 miles) northeast of Damascus – back in 2015. The enemy, however, was the same.

Pre-war censuses in Syria placed the number of Syriac Christians at around 10 percent of a total population of 23 million. But what had been a safe haven for Eastern Christians fleeing neighboring countries – especially Iraq – turned into a lethal trap for non-Muslim minorities after 2011.

It was in 2012 when the Syriacs began to organize their own armed forces. The first one was Sutoro(“security” in Turoyo, the Syriac language) – a police unit that would eventually fracture between those loyal to Assad and those siding with the Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG).

Hannah and his people opted for the second option as the political trajectory of Kurds and Syriac dissidents have run parallel in the country’s northeast. Both the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – YPG’s political wing and the dominant among the Syrian Kurds – and the Syriac Union Party (SUP) were founded in the early 2000s, and both were illegal, said SUP president Isho Gawriye.

Map: Territory held by armed factions in Iraq and Syria (DW)

“The Syrian constitution did not recognize the Syriacs as a nation, nor did it accept that one of us could be president. A Muslim could not convert to Christianity, but the opposite was legal,” Gawriye told DW from the headquarters of the Syriac Union Party in Qamishli.

“That [regime] of the Assads’ was an Arab and supposedly secular regime in which non-Arab peoples such as Kurds or Syriacs had no place,” he added.

The MFS was created in 2013 as the military wing of the SUP. In 2015 they joined the then Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US backed inter-ethnic coalition today fighting IS in the northeast. The next significant move would come in March, 2016, when delegates from various northern regions and ethnicities proclaimed the “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.”

‘The enemy is just in front of us’

An armored vehicle is the only way to access Raqqa’s frontline. The MFS has only one so it’s always packed with replacement fighters as well as boxes of ammunition and food.

The Syriac Hummer skids through the rubble of a ghost neighborhood until it reaches the first of the two positions the MFS keeps deep inside the city.

“We are around 300 meters from each other and the enemy is just in front of us,” Alexis, another MFS member, told DW while he helped unloading the vehicle.

Also in his early twenties, Alexis is already another veteran. He joined the MFS when IS was trying to take over Hassaka, his hometown, back in 2015. Like his fellow MFS fighters, the inertia of the war has dragged him to Raqqa, where he now fights alongside a 40-man force comprised mainly of Syriacs like him, but which also includes Kurds, Arabs, and even three Western volunteers.

The 26-year old Californian known locally as “Christian,” told DW that he joined the fight against IS because it’s a “good cause”. A former veteran of the Iraq war, Christian left the Marines to enlist the French Foreign Legion, from which he would eventually defect to come to Syria.

Macer Gifford ist einer der ausländischen Freiwilligen, die mit der MFS in Raqqa kämpfen (DW/K.Zurutuza)Foreign fighters like Macer Gifford (not his real name) have joined MFS against IS

Whereas Christian is highly respected within the MFS ranks for his proven experience in combat, Macer Gifford – also a pseudonym – admits he had no previous military training. The 30-year-old Londoner was actually a currency trader until he made it to northern Syria, in late 2014.

“The Kurds have lived side-by-side with Christians and Arabs, and they understand that it has to be like that”, this man who labels himself as an “internationalist” told DW.

“This is a revolution in every sense of the word. The Middle East has been waiting for a revolution to come along, it’s almost like a renaissance for this part of the world,” blurted the British fighter.

Controversial airstrikes

A key factor in the SDF advance against IS are the highly controversial US air strikes. Amnesty International has recently criticized the US-led campaign for aerial bombardment and artillery on areas likely to contain civilians and asked for an end to attacks that risk being indiscriminate.

SDF officials told DW that they are in control of over 80 percent of Raqqa although the attention has recently shifted to Deir el-Zour, where US backed SDF forces are at risk of colliding with the Russian backed Syrian Army.

Tatoos with religious motifs are recurrent among Syriacs (DW/K.Zurutuza)No one knows what will come once IS is defeated

Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Kurdish affairs expert currently on the ground talks of a “historical moment” taking place in the country’s northeast. But what comes after IS, he says, “remains unclear.”

“Most likely the Americans will stay for some years, but it’s difficult to know what will happen afterwards. Either the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria will reach an agreement with Damascus against Turkish influence in Syria, or Turkey will reach an agreement with Syria and Russia to undermine the Kurds and his allies. They could also remain de facto autonomous and not reach an agreement with anyone,” the Dutch researcher told DW.

Macer Gifford shares the widespread feeling of uncertainty.

“There’s a difference between your hopes and what the future might bring,” recalls the volunteer during his night watch. He admits that the country might well be divided in two: one part run by the regime and the other by the SDF.

“Assad is a dictator, but not a fool – and I think he’s willing to negotiate with the SDF,” said the MFS fighter, just before the start of the umpteenth air strike over Raqqa.

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Courtesy, DW

Inside Islamic State: RT’s ‘Road to Raqqa’ shows horror of 5-year war (VIDEO)

RT’s upcoming documentary ‘The Road to Raqqa’ gives a harrowing insight into the de facto capital of the failed Islamic State and the coalition of local factions and foreign fighters who fought for five long years to recapture the city.

“We had started to build our story on three points around the road to Raqqa. The first point was the medical point, the second point was the women’s point and the foreign volunteers point,” director of the documentary Anastasia Trofimova told RT. “The one quality that unites all of them is that they’re very altruistic, they’re very idealistic.”

Trofimova and her team braved improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers, sniper fire and grenade-dropping drones to tell the story of the self-proclaimed capital of the now-defunct ‘caliphate’ of the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL).

WATCH MORE: Raqqa in ruins: Drone footage of destroyed Syrian city amid continued fighting

“There was actually one [drone] that attacked us while we were not even on operation yet. We were about to go on operation,” Trofimova said.

“The grenade exploded in mid-air, so it didn’t calculate the height. If it fell over, we’d be done.”

The film also features the stories of fighters in the Kurdish People Protection Units (YPG), as well as European volunteers who joined them.

Robin, a volunteer from Germany, got sick of hearing how “someone should do something about” IS after every terrorist attack in Europe. He left behind everything he knew so he could fight IS himself.

“ISIS is acting nearly in every country. People are paying attention for one day, two days and then acting as if everything will be normal,” Robin tells Trofimova and her team.

He then recounts just one of the myriad nightmares from the devastated city, of a traumatized father with nothing left to lose.

‘Destruction, not liberation’: US-led coalition spares no civilian lives in -held  siege https://on.rt.com/8lxo 

Photo published for ‘Destruction, not liberation’: US-led coalition spares no civilian lives in ISIS-held Raqqa siege —...

‘Destruction, not liberation’: US-led coalition spares no civilian lives in ISIS-held Raqqa siege —…

The US-led coalition’s bombing campaign is responsible for most civilian deaths inside ISIS-controlled Raqqa, a local journalist told RT, providing a rare look inside the devastated city, where the…

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“ISIS just executed, a few minutes or maybe an hour ago, his three kids. All of a sudden, maybe two minutes later, we heard screams and he just started running to the ISIS base. He just started running there, without a rifle, just with a sword,” Robin adds.

“As one of the medics, that we were filming, said ‘We are the only generation that will never say that we want to go back to the days when we were young.’ And it’s true,” Trofimova told RT.

‘The Road to Raqqa,’ will be available on RT.com from Monday, September 18.

Courtesy, RT

 

‘Islamic State’: Will it survive a post-caliphate future?

Losing ground in its power base in the Middle East, the “Islamic State” militant group’s future appears as open as ever. DW spoke to counter-terrorism experts and scholars to discuss the likelihood of its survival.

Islamic State militants celebrate after commandeering an Iraqi military vehicle in Fallujah in 2014

“I announce from here the end, the failure and the collapse of the state of falsehood and terrorism, which the ‘Islamic State’ declared from Mosul,” said Iraqi premier Haider al-Abadi after a months-long campaign to drive the militant group from the strategic city.

While the devastating military campaign to liberate Mosul from the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) militant group proved successful, it has yet to spell the end for a band of militants that rallied together in 2006 and, a decade later, transformed into a global phenomenon.

In the wake of the victory in Mosul, international efforts have shifted to uprooting the militant group from its Syrian bastion in Raqqa. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led alliance of homegrown combatants, have made gains in the battle for Raqqa, but hundreds if not thousands of fighters have managed to flee towards the Syrian-Iraqi border and elsewhere outside the region.

The militant group rose to notoriety in June 2014, when it launched a vicious military campaign and captured large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, culminating in the occupation of Mosul. By the end of the month, the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of a worldwide caliphate from the historic Great Mosque of Mosul.

“In my view, IS is at heart an Iraqi organization, so its defeat in Iraq will break its back, even if remnants continue here and there, or if violent individuals or groups in non-Arab countries use its name,” Yezid Sayigh, senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center told DW, referring to the group by an alternative acronym.

Map showing IS-controlled areas

‘Decentralized jihad’

Despite its losses, the militant group continues to hold ground in parts of Iraq and Syria, especially near the border region. Tomas Olivier, counterterrorism and intelligence manager at the Netherlands-based Twickelerveld Intelligence and Investigations, told DW that even in the face of open conflict in Iraq and Syria, IS has managed to export its operational branches outside of the region to places in North Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia and Eastern and Western Africa.

“The most disturbing fact about the current IS organization is their flexibility in response, even after defeat, in which they apparently managed to establish a series of operational hubs throughout the Western hemisphere with the proven capability to – in military terms – strike ‘on demand’ or based on ideological motivation,” Olivier said.

The former senior officer at the Dutch defense ministry added that while monitoring the group’s latest online activity, he witnessed an increase in disconcerting messaging to commit attacks against the “crusaders” by any means necessary.

“IS is promoting a decentralized jihad with specific attention to lone wolf attacks in the West and against coalition targets throughout the world, from the streets of Manchester to Marawi in the Philippines,” Olivier said.

The prospect of criminality

In the wake of the militant group’s rise in 2014, more than 5,000 European nationals traveled to the Middle East to fight alongside IS. With the loss of territory in the region, international authorities have warned of the potential fallout of foreign fighters returning to their home countries in Europe and elsewhere.

A study published last year by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King’s College in London showed that roughly half of all European foreign fighters had a criminal record prior to radicalization.

In its May issue, the IS magazine “Rumiyah” showcased terror tactics for supporters, calling on them to acquire weapons to commit attacks “by means of gun dealers and underground criminal networks – for those capable of attaining those connections.” The article showed the group’s willingness to use networks beyond its conventional or religious ones.

In fact, many of the militant group’s members who committed attacks in Europe had a history of petty crime, including Berlin attack suspect Anis Amri and Salah Abdeslam, who handled logistics for the deadly 2015 Paris attacks.

Ian Oxnevad, a Middle East scholar at the University of California, Riverside, told DW that one counter-terrorism strategy to tackle the problem of returning foreign fighters is pushing them towards criminal activity by clamping down on their financial networks.

“For example, if you have former fighters with ISIS in a cell in northern Italy, but all the money they’re using to sponsor terrorism isn’t integrated into the financial system, they have to be able to maintain that funding. So they may turn to crime,” Oxnevad said.

“If they’re committing burglaries, bank robberies or black market auto parts trading, it increases their likelihood of being arrested as opposed to accepting donations.”

Watch video25:59

Europol’s Rob Wainwright | Conflict Zone

Ideology without end

While the prospect of IS’ military defeat in Iraq and Syria has raised hopes for the militant group’s end, the ideas that propelled it to notoriety continue to be accessible via social networks, digital repositories and online archives.

Oxnevad noted that even if the group is “gone off a map,” that doesn’t mean the ideology that propagates such extremism will cease to exist, especially given the statehood declaration made by al-Baghdadi in Mosul.

“You see it with neo-Nazi groups and the Third Reich, certain people in the American South and the Confederacy. Presumably you see the same thing in Russia with the Soviet Union,” Oxnevad said.

“You have the idea of recapturing something that was lost, or at least recreating it. That is something that the world will just have to safeguard against in anyway possible.”

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Turkey needles NATO by buying Russian weapons

Turkey appears to be building a military infrastructure independent of NATO – much to the annoyance of Washington. But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan might need that new S-400 missile defense system at home.

Russian S-400 at parade in Moscow

Turkey has risked the anger of the United States and its fellow NATO members by signing a contract with Russia to buy a missile defense system.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Turkish media on Tuesday that Ankara had put down a deposit on the Russian-made S-400 missile batteries, a system that can – according to the manufacturers – shoot down up to 80 targets at the same time, and has a range of 400 kilometers (248 miles).

Washington had long been warning Ankara against this purchase, and made increasingly disgruntled diplomatic noises about it. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the US Senate’s foreign relations committee, suggested that the purchase could violate US sanctions against Russia.

Read more: Özdemir: Erdogan wants to establish Turkey in Germany

For its part, Moscow remained sanguine in response. Vladimir Kozhin, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, told the Russian state news agency TASS, “I can assure you that all the decisions made for this contract strictly comply with our strategic interests. In this regard, the reaction of some Western countries that are trying to put pressure on Turkey is completely understandable to us.”

Russians at the top

For NATO, the trouble with the S-400 weapons system is that it is not technologically compatible with the systems it has in place in Turkey – in other words, Erdogan seems to have decided to build a military capacity independent of NATO. “It makes sense [for the Turkish government],” explained Guney Yildiz, Turkey specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), “because if everything is integrated with NATO, NATO commanders have full control over Turkish military systems.”

G20 Erdogan and Putin (Reuters/K.Ozer)Erdogan and Putin appear to have found much in common

On the other hand, a Russian missile system also means Russian control.

“It is a very significant development,” said Marc Pierini, former EU diplomat and analyst at Carnegie Europe. “This is a missile defense system that is going to be hosted by the Turkish air force, and the Turkish air force has no experience of anti-missile systems, therefore it is going to come with a significant number of Russian advisors, trainers, and operators and so on. So at the top of the Turkish air force defense architecture, you’re going to have Russians.”

Yildiz believes that a nationally controlled defense system has become a strategic priority for the upper echelons of the Turkish government in recent years.

Watch video00:30

Merkel: ‘We have changed our stance on Turkey’

“They feel they might need a non-NATO air defense system in case they come under attack by some factions in their own military,” he said. “Turkey was the scene of an attempted coup last year, when Turkish fighter jets were bombing Turkish institutions.”

Yildiz pointed out that there have been signs of US jealousy about Turkey’s arms deals before. He remembered that a similar narrative played out over Ankara’s attempts to buy a Chinese missile system a few years ago, when US diplomats managed to successfully dissuade the Turks. “But since then several things have changed,” said Yildiz.

“The US left a vacuum in the Middle East and Turkey tried to fill it in Syria and elsewhere by trying to directly confront Russia and Iran, and it failed really badly.”

Tit-for-tat weapons deals

The low-point of this attempt at regional self-assertion came when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane that had encroached on its territory in late 2015 – which makes the new rapprochement more surprising.

Read more: Russia, Turkey agree to reinvigorate relations after diplomatic row

“If you’d asked me six months ago I would’ve said that it was unthinkable that Turkey chooses to purchase S-400 batteries – so this does mark a significant change in Turkey’s approach,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund’s office in Ankara.

Since then, Ankara has changed tack, “pivoted away” from the West, as the jargon goes, and is now seeking regional allies anywhere it can – i.e. Russia. Not only that, Turkey is not exactly pleased by the way the US has been arming and training Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria.

Sigmar Gabriel (imago/foto2press/M. Täger)Sigmar Gabriel’s new tough line has not gone down well in Ankara

Meanwhile, as if to give Turkey even more reason to shop elsewhere, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel confirmed this week that Germany would put all arms exports to Turkey “on hold,” because of the tensions between the two countries.

Read more: Sigmar Gabriel: ‘Turkey will never join EU under Erdogan’

The response from Ankara was prickly: “Germany should keep its security concerns out of political discussions,” said Europe Minister Omer Celik, arguing that the decision would weaken Turkey’s fight against terrorism – or against Erdogan’s enemies at home, some might say. In any case, the move has added spice to Germany’s strange, paradoxical new relationship with Turkey – a major trading partner and biggest political adversary.

This all helps Russia’s cause, according to Unluhisarcikli. “Russia has discovered that it can influence Turkish foreign policy through supporting Turkey’s military industry,” he said. “And if the United States and European Union are unwilling to do the same thing, then actually Turkey might feel compelled to move away from the western orbit and closer to Russia. Russia has a very clear strategy of driving a wedge between Turkey and the United States, and particularly between Turkey and Germany.”

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‘Saudis shoot themselves in the foot bringing Qatar, Yemen, Syria & Iraq closer to Iran’

'Saudis shoot themselves in the foot bringing Qatar, Yemen, Syria & Iraq closer to Iran'
The Saudi regime has become so erratic that it turned against Qatar, one of the few regimes that have an identical ideology, and therefore brought Qatar closer to Iran, says professor of politics at Tehran University Seyed Mohammad Marandi.

Saudi Arabia has decided to suspend all dialogue with Qatar after Qatari media was accused of misreporting on phone conversations between the Emir of Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s defense minister.

Previously, US President Donald Trump urged the Gulf States to unite against Iran and expressed his willingness to act as a mediator between Doha and Riyadh.

However, in June, Trump alleged that Qatar was a sponsor of terrorism when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE first cut diplomatic and transport links with the Gulf nation.

RT: President Trump claims that the Qatar crisis is easy to solve. Why is it so hard to get the sides – Qatar and Saudi Arabia – to the negotiating table?

Seyed Mohammad Marandi: I think the most important problem is the Saud family itself and Mohammad bin Salman in particular. He is very young, he was born a billionaire. He has yes men surrounding him. He has created a mess, not just in his relationship with Qatar that we see this problem. He invaded Yemen. He has been killing the Yemeni people. His air force has been bombing hospitals, funerals, weddings, schools, and innocent civilians for almost three years now with Western support, with the US support both under Obama and Trump. And to no avail; he has lost the war effectively. He has been spreading Wahhabi extremism – he, his father, and the regime before his father have been spreading extremism n Syria, in Iraq, and across the world. Wahhabism is something the Saudis export.

What is extraordinary is that the Saudi regime has become so erratic and unpredictable that now it has turned against one of the few regimes that has an identical ideology… Qatar and Saudi Arabia are the two countries that explicitly declare themselves to be Wahhabi… It is not just an issue of sectarianism, the Saudis are even turning against Wahhabis like themselves. I don’t think the US will have an easy task in bringing these countries together. And even if they do, I don’t think the Qataris are going to trust the Saudis in the future. And Trump himself is not considered to be a very reliable partner, as the Republican Party has just discovered themselves.

The present dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the UAE is difficult to understand because it seems to be totally artificial, it doesn’t seem to have any reality behind it at all. As for President Trump’s offer to mediate, don’t forget he was asked at a press conference after the formal statements have been made, by journalists, whether he supported Kuwaiti mediation. And he said, “Yes, we do support Kuwaiti mediation.” And then he couldn’t resist adding, “I would be very ready to mediate myself if that would be useful.” I am not surprised that he said that. Maybe it is helpful. Any world leader might have said the same thing.– Oliver Miles, former UK ambassador to Libya

RT: The crisis boils down to Qatar’s alleged terrorist links with Iran. Are there any new developments on that front?

SMM: The Iranian-Qatari relationship has never been severed despite the Saudi pressure. And in fact, the Saudis have failed to disrupt the relationship between Iran and other countries, such as Oman. The Saudis, on the other hand, are putting enormous pressure on Kuwait to distance itself from Iran. But in the case of Qatar, I think it backfired. They went way too far by trying to humiliate the country and take away its sovereignty. The Qataris, which were blockaded not only by Saudi Arabia but its allies like the UAE and Bahrain from the land and the sea and air… they were preventing food from getting in. And the only way forward for Qatar was to turn to Iran. And of course, the Iranians felt that they had an obligation to support the Qataris. And this is something that the Saudis have been doing for a long time: the Iranian relationship with the people of Yemen has evolved, improved, and they have grown closer to each other because of the Saudi invasion of the country. The same is true with what the Saudis and their allies did in Syria and Iraq: they basically brought these countries closer to Iran because these countries saw the Saudis’ Wahhabi extremist ideology, which Al-Qaeda and ISIS and Boko Haram are linked to, as a threat to their existence, and they moved to Iran which they saw as a very reliable partner. That is, basically, the Saudis who have been shooting themselves in the foot time after time.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

Courtesy, RT

US-backed forces in Syria race to capture Deir el-Zour

Syrian state media said government forces have broken the “Islamic State” (IS) group’s siege of the airport to the eastern city of Deir el-Zour. The risk of a clash with US-backed Kurdish SDF forces has grown.

Syrian soldier brandishes the Syrian flag in Deir el-Zour, witha tank and fellow soldiers in the background

Syria’s SANA news agency reported on Saturday that government forces had broken the siege on two Deir el-Zour neighborhoods as well.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said it had reports that pro-government forces had opened an artery to the airport, besieged by IS militants since early this year.

The predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced Saturday they had launched military operations against IS in eastern Syria, increasing the possibility of conflict with rival, Russian-backed government forces running their own operations in the same area.

Territory held by armed factions in Iraq and Syria

Control of the border

Control of the border will shape regional dynamics going forward. Since Syria descended into civil war in March of 2011, President Bashar al-Assad has relied heavily on Iran, which has sent thousands of fighters and advisers to help fend off multiple rebel groups seeking to topple him.

Washington, however, has considerable influence in northeastern Syria, where hundreds of US troops and advisers are aiding the SDF.

The US-backed fighters are still battling to liberate Raqqa from IS control.

After three months of fighting, the SDF has liberated about 60 percent of Raqqa, which lies about 85 miles (140 km) to the northwest of Deir el-Zour and 165 miles from the Syrian-Iraqi border.

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Syrian forces have retaken a hospital in Deir el-Zour following an attack by “Islamic State” fighters, according to a monitoring group. The government forces and IS are battling for the province’s control. (15.05.2016)

While the SDF forces are expected to prevail in Raqqa, many experts believe more difficult fighting lies ahead.

Nawaf Khalil, a Syrian Kurdish representative based in Germany who frequently visits northern Syria, said the SDF no longer needed a large number of fighters in Raqqa, freeing them up for battle elsewhere.

“Deir el-Zour is a main connection point and a very important geographic area,” Khalil said.

The arrival of Syrian troops in Deir el-Zour this week ended a nearly three-year-old siege by IS militants on government-held parts of the city. The Syrian military issued a victory statement, saying the city would be used as a launching pad to liberate other IS-held areas along the Iraqi border.

bik/jm (AP, Reuters)

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