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US-backed forces cut off last Daesh escape route from Raqqa

UN estimates some 100,000 civilians remain in city, used as human shields by extremists

By AFP - Jun 29,2017 - Last updated at Jun 29,2017

An American sniper (right) and British fighter supporting the Syriac Military Council, a small minority of Christian fighters fighting alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces in the combat against the Daesh group, guard a position in the suburb of Al Rumaniya on the western outskirts of Raqqa on Tuesday after the area was seized from the fighters (AFP photo)

BEIRUT — US-backed forces cut off the last escape route for the Daesh terror group from Raqqa on Thursday, a monitor said, trapping the besieged extremists inside their de facto Syrian capital.

Fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)  captured two villages on the southern bank of the Euphrates River the extremists had been passing through to withdraw from the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

It was the latest setback for Daesh, which declared its “caliphate” straddling Syria and Iraq three years ago but has since lost most of the territory it once controlled.

It came too as Iraqi forces announced the recapture of an iconic mosque in Daesh’s last major Iraqi bastion Mosul, prompting Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi to declare “the end” of the “fake” extremist state.

The SDF, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab forces backed by the US-led anti-Daesh coalition, broke into Raqqa on June 6 after spending months chipping away at extremist territory around the city.

Its fighters have since captured two eastern and two western districts of the city and are pushing towards the city centre, where Daesh extremists are holding tens of thousands of civilians.

The SDF had surrounded the extremists from the north, east and west but they were still able to escape across the Euphrates, which forms the southern border of the city.

Thursday’s advance saw SDF fighters capture the villages of Kasrat Afnan and Kasab on the southern bank of the Euphrates, cutting off the route the extremists were using to withdraw to territory Daesh controls in the Syrian desert and in Deir Ezzor province.

“The SDF has been able to completely encircle Raqqa,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based observatory, which monitors Syria’s conflict through a network of sources on the ground.

 

60% of territory lost 

 

Daesh overran Raqqa in mid-2014 as part of the offensive that saw it seize control of large parts of Syria and Iraq. 

The city became infamous as the scene of some of the group’s worst atrocities, including public beheadings, and is thought to have been a hub for planning attacks overseas.

The United Nations estimates some 100,000 civilians remain in the city, with the extremists accused of using them as human shields.

Marking the third anniversary of Daesh’s declaration of a state on June 29, 2014, a leading analysis firm said the extremists had since lost more than 60 per cent of their territory and 80 per cent of their revenue.

In January 2015, Daesh controlled about 90,800 square kilometres, but by June 2017 that number dropped to 36,200, said IHS Markit.

The biggest fall was in the first six months of 2017, when Daesh lost around 24,000 square kilometres of territory.

“Daesh’s rise and fall has been characterised by rapid inflation, followed by steady decline,” said Columb Strack, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Markit.

“Three years after the ‘caliphate’ was declared, it is evident that the group’s governance project has failed,” Strack said.

IHS Markit said Daesh’s average monthly revenue had plummeted by 80 per cent, from $81 million in the second quarter of 2015 to just $16 million in the second quarter of 2017.

The White House envoy to the coalition, Brett McGurk, visited one of the recaptured areas on Thursday, meeting with local officials in the northern Syrian town of Tabqa.

Daesh extremists were ousted from Tabqa and an adjacent dam on May 10 during the SDF offensive around Raqqa.

 

The visit came a day after McGurk met with members of the Raqqa civil council, the body expected to run the northern city after Daesh expected fall there.

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