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.

DW RECOMMENDS

Courtesy, DW

Suicide attacks kill scores in Iraq

The “Islamic State” has claimed responsibility for a pair of suicide attacks that killed at least 70 and injured many more. Several Iranian pilgrims were among the dead.

Irak Doppelanschlag in der Nähe von Nassirijah (Reuters/E. Al-Sudani)

Suicide bombers attacked a restaurant and a police checkpoint near the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah on Thursday, leaving scores dead and many more injured.

Local officials said the death toll was likely to climb with many of the wounded in a serious condition.

The attack started when unidentified gunmen opened fire at people in a highway restaurant. One attacker detonated his explosive vest inside the restaurant.

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

The remaining attackers then got into a car and drove to a nearby security checkpoint, where they blew themselves up.

The militants were disguised as members of the Hashed al-Shaabi, a mainly Shiite paramilitary force that has fought alongside the army against the so-called Islamic State militants in northern Iraq, AFP news agency reported, citing security sources.

Bullet marks in a restaurant after attackThe attackers opened fire at people in this highway restaurant

Iranian pilgrims among dead

IS claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement on its Amaq news agency, where the Sunni Muslim militant group said it had killed “dozens of Shiites.”

Hospital sources told Reuters news agency that at least 10 Iranian pilgrims, who were visiting holy Shi’ite shrines, were among the dead.

IS-backed attacks in southern Iraq, where the bulk of the country’s oil is produced, are relatively rare thanks to a tighter grip maintained by the Iraqi security forces.

The area targeted on Thursday is on a highway used by Shia pilgrims and visitors from neighboring Iran to travel to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala further north.

ap/sms (Reuters, AFP, dpa)

Watch video05:42

Germany: A Syrian on the trail of IS

DW RECOMMENDS

AUDIOS AND VIDEOS ON THE TOPIC

 

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…

rt.com

“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.”

DW RECOMMENDS

AUDIOS AND VIDEOS ON THE TOPIC

Courtesy, DW

What attracts Japanese women to ‘Islamic State’?

Reports from Iraq suggest that as many as five Japanese are among those detained after the fall of an “Islamic State” stronghold near Mosul. Why did they leave safe and peaceful Japan to live in a war zone?

Irak Islamischer Staat Propagandafoto (picture-alliance/Zuma Press)

Japan has been shocked by reports that a handful of Japanese women have been detained in Iraq, apparently after travelling to the region to marry fighters for the so-called “Islamic State” (IS) – although there seems to be little sympathy for their plight.

Media reports from Iraq specify that more than 1,330 foreign women and children are currently being held at a camp for displaced people in northern Iraq. The foreign nationals, who according to the Associated Press were families of “IS” fighters, surrendered to Kurdish forces in late August after the “IS” stronghold in Tal Afar near Mosul was captured. The foreign nationals are believed to be from 14 countries, with Japan’s Shukan Bunshun news magazine reporting that five are Japanese citizens.

No additional information has been provided by the Japanese authorities, such as the names, genders or ages of the five people. There is speculation, however, that at least one of the women travelled to Iraq to marry an Islamic State fighter. It is also possible that children may be among the five detainees.

The reports have stunned Japan, where the only previous suggestion that anyone was attempting to join IS came when a student from a university in Hokkaido was detained after claiming he was planning to join the revolution.

Japanese just as susceptible to ‘IS’ 

Irak | Frau mit Kind in einem Lager in der Nähe von Mossul (picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Szlanko)A woman and child in a tent camp for ‘IS’ families captured in Mosul, Iraq in August 2017

The reports of Japanese women travelling to live with IS fighters is a similar story told many times in Europe, where cases of young women travelling to Iraq to marry IS insurgents have drawn a lot of attention.

The narrative centers on how impressionable young women were groomed through social media and convinced to leave a peaceful and stable life to live in a war zone.

Makoto Watanabe, an associate professor of communications and media at Hokkaido Bunkyo University, told DW that a similar approach would have been used on Japanese women, and that they would have been just as susceptible.

Read more: German teenage runaway suspected of joining IS found in Iraq

“Young people in Japan have become deeply disconnected from society as a result of the Internet and social media,” he said, adding that youth have a network of friends on social media, yet remain absent from a large part of society and are isolated and disconnected.

“These people are lonely and often trying to find an identity for themselves,” said Watanabe. “This is why they often believe everything they are told when they come into direct contact with, for example, someone from Islamic State on a chat site or some other internet page.”

“They have become distant from society and have questions,” Watanabe added. “Those questions can include religion and god and the answers they get online can be quite appealing.”

There has also been a minor boom in interest among some young Japanese in Middle Eastern culture, arts, history, cuisine and religion, with a number of young people – primarily women – being sufficiently interested to take part in events at the mosque in Tokyo’s Shibuya district.

A spokesman for The Japan Muslim Association said he was unaware of reports of Japanese women heading to Iraq to join IS and declined to comment on their possible reasons.

Watch video01:04

Why do women join “IS”? – DW talks to Matenia Sirseloudi, University of Bremen

Parallels with Aum cult

Watanabe believes there may be parallels between people joining IS and those who joined Aum Shinrikyo, the apocalyptic Japanese cult that planned to overthrow the government and set up its own state. Its aims were thwarted after some of its followers released sarin nerve gas on Tokyo’s subway system in 1995, killing 12 people and injuring a further 4,000.

“The people who joined that cult were trying to find a place and meaning to their lives and were attracted by an organization with a strong creed that eventually grew into Aum, so there are definite similarities with young Japanese who feel an affiliation with Islamic State,” he said.

Whatever their motivations, the women who have married Islamic State fighters they have only met online cannot expect a warm welcome when they return to Japan, even though the authorities are unlikely to prosecute them.

Read more: Japan PM vows justice after IS beheading of Goto

Read more: ‘Islamic State’ claims killing of Japanese national in Bangladesh

Ignored in Japanese media

“This has not been talked about in society or the media at all until now, as far as I can tell,” said Watanabe, who believes that domestic media have ignored previous reports that Japanese women were heading to the Middle East to marry Islamic State fighters. He added that this may be because they self-censored their reporting on the grounds that it reflected badly on Japan.

This approach contrasts dramatically with media coverage in Europe, where cases of young women going to the Middle East to join IS insurgents they met online have been widely reported.

An alternative explanation, Watanabe suggested, would be that the Japanese media is far more interested in local scandals involving a Japanese politician or TV star, adding that there is also a strong possibility that the government intervened and ordered media companies not to broadcast the news.

Watch video03:13

Why young girls become radicalized

DW RECOMMENDS

AUDIOS AND VIDEOS ON THE TOPIC

Courtesy, DW

Hezbollah co-leader: US nurtured ISIS monster against Syrian govt, now has to fight them

The US had to step back from its policy of regime change in Syria after multiple failures, as the jihadists they allegedly hoped to use as a proxy began posing a threat, Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary General, Sheikh Naim Qassem argued in an interview to RT.

For an exclusive interview with RT’s Eisa Ali, one of the most senior Hezbollah leaders agreed to meet –with the toughest security precautions in place – in a clandestine location in Beirut. Qassem told RT he believes US President Donald Trump has opted for a less confrontational approach in Syria of late after previous attempts to oust the Syrian government proved futile.

“When they failed by using the military option, or by using the opposition option, or by using their cooperation with the regional Arabic countries that wanted change in Syria in favor of Israel, America adopted a new non-confrontation policy with President [Bashar] Assad because of their inability to do more, and because they know that [Islamic State] is against them as much as they are against the Syrian people,” Kassem claimed.

READ MORE: No role for West & allies in Syria until they cut support to terrorists – Assad

He noted, however, that a perceived change in political strategy does not mean that the White House has reversed its opinion of Assad, arguing that the US has been left with no better option than to fight the “monster” of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) which they helped to create in the first place but which has “now shifted against them.” 

‘We’ll respect any choice made by the Syrian people’

Speaking of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Hezbollah’s view on his role as the country’s head of state, Qassem said that the group regards Assad as the legitimate ruler of Syria, re-elected by the people to serve as the country’s leader.

Arguing that the main interest of the US in the war was to “remove President Assad from power and change Syria’s stance from resistance to American-Israeli friendly,” he praised Assad for being an effective leader, guiding his country through difficult times of war.
However, he went on to stress that the Syrian President’s fate lies exclusively in the hands of the Syrian people.

We are with the Syrian people’s choice and when it is election time and Syria’s choice will be made without external intervention, we will respect any choice made by the Syrian people.”

Qassem said there is an “effective” cooperation between the Syrian and Russian armed forces, Iran and Hezbollah, which has contributed greatly to Syria’s driving jihadists out of swathes of its territory.

‘Israel plays part in Syria’s destruction’

Accusing Israel of fuelling the protracted Syrian conflict, Qassem in particular pointed to the Jewish state’s reported support of armed opposition groups fighting the Syrian forces and affiliated militias in the south-western Syrian city of Daraa and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

“Israel plays the main part in Syria’s destruction, and it is an important supporter of the armed opposition, especially in the southern part of Syria,” Kassem said.

Qassem further claimed that over 3000 militants fighting the Syrian government have received treatment in Israeli hospitals, adding that there have been reports of cross-border supplies of munitions and food from Israel to Syria.

A US-Russian ceasefire agreement for south-western Syria dealt a blow to Israel’s alleged aspirations as it did not include removing Hezbollah from its positions in the border area, Qassem argued. Shortly after the deal was agreed in July, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the plan, saying it might strengthen Iranian influence in the country.

Criticism was levelled at Hezbollah in late August for allowing the evacuation of some 300 Islamic State terrorists and roughly as many family members from the Qalamoun Mountains to the eastern province of Deir al-Zor as part of the deal to return bodies of eight slain Hezbollah fighters. Qassem justified the controversial move by saying that the group did not know whether the fighters were alive or dead and that it was “an important chance that could not be [used] again.”

READ MORE: ‘Lines agreed to’ with Russia for final push against ISIS in Syria – US general

The deal sparked outrage, with critics slamming the group for negotiating with terrorists. After the deal was struck and the militants departed to Deir ez-Zor, the US-led international coalition shelled the road to impede relocations of militants and their family members and struck some of the vehicles and fighters it “clearly identified as ISIS.” In a statement following the attack, the coalition said it “was not a party to any agreement” negotiated between Lebanon, ISIS and Hezbollah and considered the moving of terrorists from one part of the country to another “not a lasting solution.”

Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict six years ago, Hezbollah has been embroiled in fighting IS and Al-Nusra Front terrorists in Syria in cooperation with government forces. The group, which is listed as a terrorist entity in the West and in most of the Arab League countries, has been repeatedly targeted by Israeli airstrikes on Syrian soil.

Courtesy, RT

Last major pocket of ISIS terrorists’ resistance in central Syria eliminated – Russian MoD

Last major pocket of ISIS terrorists' resistance in central Syria eliminated – Russian MoD
Syrian government forces, supported by Russian air power, have wiped out the last major pocket of terrorist resistance in central Syria, liberating the strategic town of Akerbat in Hama governorate, Russia’s defense ministry has announced.

“The units of the 4th tank division of Syrian government forces, in collaboration with the 5th Volunteer Corps and military intelligence unit (Mukhabarat), liberated the town of Akerbat,” the ministry said.

“The operation to destroy a large group of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) fighters in the eastern part of the Hama province was carried out with the active support of the Russian Air Force.”

Russian planes destroyed terrorist strongholds and their armored hardware. The jets also targeted IS artillery positions, control points and communication outposts.

“The last major pocket of terrorist resistance in central Syria has been eliminated,” the ministry said, adding that the Syrian army is now targeting the rest of the completely surrounded IS forces in the area.

Clearing Akerbat can be considered one of the most important battles against the terrorists by government forces, Ivan Konovalov, head of military policy at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, told RT.

“The so-called ‘Akerbat pocket’ is one of the most important battles at this stage. Destruction of a large enemy grouping in this region certainly affects the balance of power,” Konovalov noted.

“Such successful military operations always matter – the enemy’s troops and equipment are destroyed. The more often such operations are conducted, the closer we get to the end of the war,” the expert explained, emphasizing the pivotal role Russian forces are playing in Syria.

The liberation of Akerbat is paving the way for a further offensive by the Syrian Army, in particular on Deir ez-Zor. The Syrian Army is expected to attack the terrorists from several directions and has been making rapid progress on that front.

“This is a strategic victory. Now all terrorists are locked up in Deir ez-Zore province,” Konstantin Truyevtsev, a senior researcher at the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies told RT.

“Over time, this will have an impact on the development of the war, especially the capture of Deir ez-Zor, which is the last major stronghold of ISIS,” Konovalov added.

The Syrian Army, backed by the Russian Air Force, continues to ramp up pressure on the jihadists to drive them out of the city of Deir ez-Zor. On Saturday the ministry announced that Russian jets have intensified its bombing of ISIS positions there.

Over the past 24 hours, Russian warplanes destroyed nine armored vehicles, including two tanks, six artillery positions, one home-made multiple rocket launcher, three supply depots and over 20 supply trucks carrying fuel, weapons and ammunition.

The Russian defense ministry has previously stated that breaking the blockade of Deir ez-Zor will mark the defeat of the last capable grouping of IS terrorists in Syria.

Courtesy, RT