Iraqi forces capture border crossing to Syria from IS
By BASSEM MROUE and BALINT SZLANKO
Jun. 17, 2017
BEIRUT (AP) — Iraqi forces captured Saturday a border crossing point to Syria from the Islamic State group, increasing pressure on the extremists and getting closer to meeting up with Syrian troops and their allies who reached the border earlier this month for the first time in years.
Tribal forces and border police, supported by Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition aircraft, took part in the operation to take the al-Waleed crossing, the Iraqi Joint Operations Command said in a statement.
Al-Waleed, in the far west of Iraq, fell to the Islamic State group in 2015, giving the militants full control of the Iraq-Syria border, which they vowed to erase as part of their ambition to build their caliphate.
Saturday's push by Iraqi troops came nearly three weeks after Iraq's paramilitary forces — mostly Shiite fighters with close ties to Iran referred to as the Popular Mobilization Forces — reached the Syrian border in northeastern Iraq.
In recent months the militants have been coming under increasing pressure in Iraq and Syria where they have lost vast parts of the land they declared as a caliphate in Syria and Iraq in June 2014.
U.S. troops and Syrian opposition fighters control the Tanf area on the other side from al-Waleed. Earlier this month, Iranian-sponsored pro-Syrian government forces outflanked U.S. advisers and rebels holding the Tanf border crossing to establish their own link to Iraq for the first time in years. The Iraqi side is still held by IS.
Syrian troops in the area are preparing to march on Islamic State positions to the north, in the Euphrates River Valley.
The push by Iraqi forces came as the Syrian military announced Saturday the cessation of all combat operations in the southern city of Daraa for 48 hours in support of national reconciliation efforts after days of violence in the area.
The announcement comes days after the contested city witnessed some of the worst fighting in months amid fears by opposition activists that the government will try to take Daraa, where the country's civil war began in 2011.
In a statement, the army's General Command said that all combat operations will stop as of Saturday 12 p.m. (0900 GMT) for 48 hours. A "de-escalation agreement" brokered by Iran, Russia and Turkey in May has brought hardly any relief to the city, activists said. The agreement covers four zones in Syria where the rebels are fighting pro-government forces.
The Syrian government cites national reconciliation efforts when a deal has been reached with local gunmen to give up fighting against the state in return for amnesty. Saturday's announcement came amid ongoing talk in neighboring Jordan to calm the situation in southern Syria.
A western diplomat said in Beirut this week that the U.S., Russia and Jordan were holding closed-door meetings in Amman to halt the fighting between rebels and the government in southern Syria.
The three nations are debating the boundaries of a cease-fire line between the government and rebels in what is hoped to be a comprehensive agreement that would delineate the control of border crossings with Jordan, the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.
In the northern city of Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State group, a U.S.-backed Syrian force entered new neighborhoods east and west of the city adding that they were able to free dozens of civilians who were trapped in the fighting.
IS has been preventing civilians from leaving Raqqa in an apparent attempt to use them as human shields.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces launched an offensive to capture Raqqa from the extremists on June 6, under the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition. SDF fighters have captured at least three neighborhoods from IS since then.
The SDF said in a statement posted on social media Saturday that its fighters have now entered the western neighborhoods of Bareed, Hiteen and Qadissiya, as well as the eastern neighborhood of Bayatra.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks Syria's war, says airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition since June 6 have killed 117 civilians and wounded hundreds.
Szlanko reported from Irbil, Iraq.