US and UK-backed fighters approach Islamic State-held dam in Syria
Kurdish-led fighters are approaching a strategic dam controlled by Islamic State in northern Syria after days of fighting that killed a senior IS military commander, a spokesman for the US-backed forces said.
Talal Sillo of the Syria Democratic Forces said the fighters, with the support of US, French and British special forces, have driven IS from dozens of villages and farms in recent days and are about three miles from the Euphrates Dam.
The SDF, a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters, has been on the offensive in Raqqa province since early November, advancing with the aid of US-led air strikes. The operation is aimed at encircling and eventually retaking Raqqa, the de facto capital of the extremist group's self-declared caliphate.
The city is home to nearly 200,000 mostly Sunni Arabs and an estimated 5,000 IS fighters.
"The ongoing operation is the second phase west of Raqqa," Mr Sillo said, adding that the first phase was north of the city. "More phases will come later to isolate the city and then to begin liberating it."
The capture of the dam, which controls the flow of water to parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq, would deal a major blow to the extremist group, which has held the facility for more than two years. Behind the dam lies Lake Assad, which at 250 square miles is Syria's largest reservoir.
Both sides claim to have inflicted heavy casualties on the other. The IS-linked Aamaq news agency reported on Monday that 24 SDF fighters were killed in the area, while Mr Sillo said his forces had killed dozens of extremists.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fate of a senior IS military commander known as Abu Jandal al-Kuwaiti is still unknown after he was targeted by US-led coalition aircraft. The Syrian army said he was killed fighting in the Tabqa area near the dam. IS supporters on social media confirmed he was killed.
US Central Command said that coalition aircraft conducted nine strikes near the city of Raqqa on Monday that engaged three IS tactical units, destroying vehicles rigged with explosives, a bridge, a fighting position, and a supply cache. It said two air strikes near the Ein Issa area north of Raqqa hit two IS tactical units and destroyed two fighting positions.
Mr Sillo said that in recent days the SDF has captured 500 square miles. He said the next target is the town of Tabqa, home to a military base where IS fighters killed scores of captured Syrian troops in 2014. He said the fighting on Tuesday was concentrated near Jaabar castle on Lake Assad, after the SDF captured the nearby village of Jaabar.
The US-backed SDF is made up of several Arab, Kurdish, Turkmen and Christian groups that have captured wide areas of northern Syria from IS over the past year. The largest and most powerful groups in the coalition are the main Kurdish militias known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG, and the Women's Protection Units, or YPJ.
The SDF is the most effective ground force battling IS in Syria.