- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 2, 2017

Arab and Kurdish forces backed by American artillery and air power are pressing deeper into the Islamic State’s self-styled capital of Raqqa over the weekend, as U.S. and coalition commanders weigh the impacts of a Syrian role in battling the terror group.

Fresh reinforcements joined the ranks of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the constellation of various Arab and Kurdish militias fighting to liberate Raqqa from Islamic State control, over the weekend as those fighters continue to seize neighborhoods in and around the Syrian city.

As many as 1,000 militiamen have joined the fight in Raqqa, concentrating on the eastern and western front lines outside the city, an SDF spokesman told The Associated Press on Sunday. The SDF, supported by U.S. special operations advisers on the ground, coupled with American fighters, bombers and heavy artillery launched the operation to retake Raqqa in early June.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, American-backed security forces claimed victory in the battle to liberate Mosul, which had been the terror group’s main hub in northern Iraq for the last two years.

The capture of the al Nuri mosque — the famed Mosul holy site where Islamic State chieftain Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi infamously declared the creation of the group’s caliphate — was a strategic and “symbolic” victory for Iraqi and coalition forces, the top U.S. spokesman in Iraq and Syria Col. Ryan Dillon said last week.

“That is a significant and symbolic recapture of the al-Nuri mosque,” noting Iraqi forces officially assumed control of the site on the third anniversary of al-Bagdadi’s proclamation. Islamic State fighters attempted to blow up the mosque before it fell into Iraqi and coalition hands, a clear sign to many the group was on its last legs in Mosul.

But as the momentum in the Islamic State fight now shifts to Syria and the Raqqa operation, coalition commanders are attempting to negotiate the difficult scenario of Syrian forces increasingly entering the fray.

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, along with Russian forces and Iranian paramilitaries have stepped up their operations against the Islamic State in the country. Regional observers say the Assad regime’s efforts to fight the terror group in places like Deir-e-zour and other Islamic State redoubts in the central Euphrates River Valley is a thinly veiled effort to consolidate the regime’s control in Syria.

Assad forces, with the support of a heavy Russian aerial campaign, have largely routed much of the moderate rebels who have been battling to overthrow the Syrian leader for the last six years.

Iranian backed forces loyal to the Assad regime are using the Islamic State fight for their own means, in an attempt to forge a so-called “Shia crescent” spanning from Tehran to Damascus, connecting the Iranian regime to its proxy forces in Lebanon, analysts say.

For his part, Col. Dillon said it remained too early in the Raqqa campaign to speculate on what Damascus’ role will be.

“We are going to have to see how far the [Assad] regime makes it, where are they going to concentrate their efforts” around Raqqa and the greater river valley, he said

“These are all things have still have yet to happen, and we have to let that play out before we figure out where we are going to fight ISIS next,” he added.

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