Syrian army reportedly set to advance into Raqqa province

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Syrian forces are set to move into Raqqa province, held by Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), to pre-empt the U.S.-led coalition sending in ground troops to fight the jihadists, reports say.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said on Feb. 12 he expected Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to send commandos to help recapture Raqqa.

Syrian government tanks drive in Tal Jabin, north of Aleppo, on Feb. 3. /AFP
Syrian tanks in Tal Jabin, north of Aleppo, on Feb. 3. /AFP

A Syrian military source told Reuters the army, backed by Russian airstrikes and Iranian-backed militias, captured positions at the provincial border between Hama and Raqqa on Feb. 13 and 14 and intends to advance further. It would be Syria’s first advance into Raqqa province since 2014.

“It is an indication of the direction of coming operations towards Raqqa. In general, the Raqqa front is open … starting in the direction of the Tabqa area,” the source said.

Tabqa is the location of an air base captured by ISIL in 2014, and the source said the Syrian forces had moved to within 35 kilometers (20 miles) of the base.

Russia, meanwhile, has said it will continue bombing ISIL and Al Qaida-linked Nusra Front, but many in the West say Moscow also continues to hit moderate rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Two commanders of Syrian rebel groups fighting Assad’s offensive in Aleppo, told Reuters on Feb. 12 that they had been sent “excellent quantities” of Grad rockets (with a range of 12 miles) by foreign backers in recent days to help confront the Russian-backed offensive.

Foreign opponents of Assad, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have been supplying the rebel groups with weapons via an operations center based in Turkey. Some of the rebel groups, who have received military training overseen by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, have been a regular target of Russian airstrikes.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Russia was hitting “legitimate opposition groups” and civilians with its bombing campaign in Syria and said Moscow must change its targets to respect the recent ceasefire deal.

Asked on Feb. 13 to assess the chances of the ceasefire deal’s success, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov replied: “49 percent.”

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