Syrian Kurdish and rebel forces advanced on Thursday into al-Raqqa province, where the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group has its de facto capital, a monitor said.
The advance comes amid international talks on the ongoing war on Syria, including the finalization of a “train-and-equip” deal between Turkey and US to support rebel fighters, and the closure of a White House summit on ISIS.
"The YPG (Kurdish People's Protection Units) and rebel forces captured 19 villages in Raqqa province," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The advance comes as Kurdish and rebel forces push outwards from the border town of Kobane, from which they expelled ISIS forces after more than four months of fighting.
Since driving ISIS out of Kobane on January 26, Kurdish and allied forces have taken much of the surrounding countryside in northern Aleppo province and begun pushing east into neighboring Raqqa province.
They have captured some 242 villages around Kobane, including the 19 in Raqqa province, according to the Observatory, and are now 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Tal Abyad, another Kurdish-majority border town overrun by ISIS. Located 65 kilometers east of Kobane, the town is used by ISIS fighters to cross into Turkey.
Several month after ISIS swept across northern Iraq in June, seizing swathes of territory and proclaiming a caliphate in parts of the country as well as regions in neighboring Syria, a US-led coalition of around 60 mainly Western and Arab states was formed.
Turkey has been a reluctant partner in the coalition against the insurgents, refusing a frontline military role despite its 1,200 kilometer (750-mile) border with Iraq and Syria. But it agreed in principle to train and equip Syrian rebels and is already training Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq.
Turkey, US sign “train and equip” deal
In its latest bid in backing opposition forces in Syria, Turkey signed a deal with the United States on Thursday to train and equip thousands of Syrian rebel forces after a couple months of difficult negotiations between the NATO allies, officials said.
"Turkey and the United States signed a document a short time ago on the train-and-equip (program)," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters.
A US embassy spokesman confirmed that the deal was inked in Ankara by Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu and US ambassador to Turkey John Bass.
The US government hopes the program can begin by late March, so the first trained rebel forces can be operational by year's end, according to the Pentagon.
Their goal is to train more than 5,000 Syrian rebels in the first year of the program and a total of 15,000 over a three-year period. The training will reportedly take place in the Turkish town of Kirsehir in central Anatolia.
Turkey, a vocal critic of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, wants “moderate” rebels factions to be trained to battle the regime in Damascus as well as ISIS insurgents.
Washington, whose aircraft target ISIS positions in Syria and Iraq, wants to train the rebel forces as part of its fight against ISIS.
The effect of the open-ended US-led air campaign remains the subject of debate, with the White House saying the militants have been damaged by the strikes and critics pointing to ISIS’ advances and battlefield successes despite the raids.
Aleppo freeze plan responsibility of all armed parties: Damascus
In an interview with Reuters on Thursday, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoabi said Syrian army progress against ISIS far outstripped anything accomplished by the coalition that has ruled out the idea of partnering with Damascus.
"What the Syrian army is accomplishing on a daily basis is many, many times more important than everything that the so-called alliance against terrorism is doing," Zoabi said.
"The Syrian army is also using its warplanes against Daesh, using its weapons, its military plans against Daesh and has more experience in the field on the ground in fighting Daesh and the Nusra Front," Zoabi added, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
The army has recently made advances against ISIS in the provinces of Hasaka and in Deir Ezzor, which both border Iraq.
Nearly four years into the conflict, Syria is fighting insurgents including ISIS, al-Qaeda's Syria wing the al-Nusra Front, Islamist brigades and Western-backed rebels in southern and northern Syria.
This week, the northern city of Aleppo witnessed heavy fighting as the Syrian army along with pro-government forces launched an offensive to recapture villages in the province from opposition fighters and to break the months-long siege off the towns of al-Zahraa and Nubl.
The battle for Aleppo, Syria's most populous city when the uprising began, is one of the longest lasting of the war. Rebels who bring supplies from the north still control part of the city.
Pursuing a truce in the northern city, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said on Tuesday that Damascus was willing to suspend aerial bombardment and artillery shelling so a local ceasefire could be tested in the city.
Asked whether the ceasefire would work, Zoabi said: "The success of any effort related to the war on Syria depends on the capacity of the parties that finance the armed terrorist groups to control them, deter them, and halt their actions and massacres against civilians."
Zoabi said he was referring to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Jordan — which have all offered support to rebels fighting the government in the war estimated to have killed around 210,000 people and displaced 12 million Syrians. The Syrian government refers to all armed opposition fighters as “terrorists.”
"Talking about freezing shelling is part of a freeze of fighting, meaning this freeze in fighting is the responsibility of all the armed parties in Aleppo," Zoabi said.
Damascus and other critics opposed to US involvement in the conflict with ISIS have pointed out that Washington in partnership with its allies, including Turkey, played a role in the formation and expansion of extremist groups like ISIS by arming, financing and politically empowering armed opposition groups in Syria.
Summit “without substance” on ISIS ends
A solution to violent extremist is this century’s greatest test, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday at a White House summit on the subject.
“Addressing violent extremism in a manner that solves rather than multiplies the problem may be the greatest test our human family faces in the 21st century,” Ban said.
The US sought to unite nations around a common vision for combating violent jihadist groups in three days of talks which ended Thursday long on words but short on concrete steps.
According to the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security committee Michael McCaul, the summit was “without substance.”
"Instead of a real plan for rolling back and defeating Islamist terrorist groups, we got empty rhetoric from the president and the announcement of 'new' initiatives that are really a rehash of old programs," McCaul said.
On the final day of his high-profile summit, US President Barack Obama laid out some priorities to neutralize the "warped ideologies" espoused by extremist groups like ISIS by tackling the root causes driving recruitment to their ranks.
Obama said the priorities should include governments deepening cooperation against foreign fighters; seeking to end sectarian tensions and conflicts, such as in Syria; cutting off funding to groups “fueling hatred”; and addressing economic and political grievances to allow growth and development.
“War against extremism and radical ideology is our war and we must defend ourselves and our faith,” said Nasser Judeh, Jordan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. The solution to solving the problem, he said, was “education, opportunity, and empowerment.”
The Director of the National Counterterrorism Center conceded that ISIS was more difficult to fight than other designated terrorist organizations, and emphasized the group’s highly efficient use of social media as the biggest challenge to preventing young recruits.
The group’s ability to attract foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq plays an important role in its power, Nick Rasmussen said, as he cited ISIS’s "agile and highly capable use of social media," which makes its discourse reach far beyond the boundaries of the territories it currently holds.
The US administration said it would step up information-sharing to thwart would-be foreign fighters, and pledged to boost cooperation with Interpol.
Washington was also joining with the United Arab Emirates to create a new digital communications hub to work with religious and civil society leaders to counter extremist propaganda.
Observers say some 20,000 foreign fighters have left their homelands to join extremist groups in the past few years — including an estimated 4,000 since 2012 from Western Europe.
Fearing the risk of attacks at home by jihadists returning from Syria amidst ISIS advances, some European Union countries which withdrew their ambassadors from Syria are saying privately it is time for more communication with Damascus, even though Britain and France oppose it.
Diplomats said the calls have come from or would be supported by countries including Sweden, Denmark, Romania, Bulgaria, Austria and Spain, as well as the Czech Republic, which did not withdraw its ambassador. Norway and Switzerland, which are outside the EU, are also supportive.
In a statement released at the end of Thursday’s talks, the participants promised to "chart a path for progress" ahead of summit talks on the margins of the UN General Assembly in September and to take up the baton by organizing further meetings to build a strategy.
UN chief seeks action on Syria sieges, barrel bombs
As a first step, Ban said he would host faith leaders from around the world, warning that the "emergence of a new generation of transnational terrorist groups ... is a grave threat to international peace and security."
"Military operations are crucial to confront real threats. But bullets are not the 'silver bullet,'" he added. "Missiles may kill terrorists. But good governance kills terrorism."
In a report to the security council, Ban denounced the business-as-usual approach to Syria and called for urgent action to lift sieges on civilians and to end barrel bomb attacks.
“This conflict has become business as usual," Ban wrote in the report, obtained by AFP. It was the 12th report to the council, which has been deeply divided over the war.
The UN chief said the Syrian crisis is worsening and issued fresh appeals for a political solution. He listed five priorities for action including the lifting of sieges on 212,000 people, ensuring access to medical aid to all of Syria and rebuilding the education system.
The Syrian army is besieging 185,500 people in eastern Ghouta, Darayya and Yarmouk while armed opposition groups in Nubl and al-Zahraa are preventing 26,500 people from gaining access to food and other supplies, the report said.
Ban, who is due to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Syria during a meeting next week, also said the 15-member council must address barrel-bomb attacks on civilians and end the practice of denying services as a weapon of war.
In a BBC interview this month, Assad flatly denied that the army using barrel bombs, describing such claims as a "childish story."
"I haven't heard of (the) army using barrels, or maybe cooking pots," Assad said, laughing.
"We have bombs, missiles and bullets," he added, dismissing claims that the army is using indiscriminate weapons.
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