A U.S.-backed alliance of militias has made unexpectedly rapid gains against the Islamic State near its Syrian headquarters of Raqqa, advancing to within a few kilometers of a major dam, its spokesman said.
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The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based organization that reports on the conflict, said one of the Islamic State's top commanders in Syria was probably killed in fighting near the dam on the Euphrates River some 50 km (30 miles) west of Raqqa city.
The Syrian Democratic Forces alliance, which includes the powerful Kurdish YPG militia, launched the second phase of a campaign against ISIS 10 days ago. The ultimate aim is to capture Raqqa.
The latest phase is targeting ISIS-held areas to the west of the city, including the dam near Tabqa. The first phase, launched in early November, targeted ISIS positions to the north.
"1,300 square km [captured from Islamic State] in 10 days – we were expecting it to take longer, but the Daesh defenses disintegrated," said Silo in a phone interview, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. Fifteen SDF fighters had been killed in the latest advances, he said.
ISIS was deploying suicide car bombs in its efforts to fend off the assault, Silo said, adding that these were being destroyed before reaching their targets thanks to anti-armor weapons recently supplied by the U.S.-led coalition.
U.S. special forces were working "side by side with our forces," he said.
The Observatory identified the Islamic State commander killed in the latest fighting as Abu Jandal al-Kuwaiti. Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman said he was killed as ISIS fighters sought to recapture the village of Jabar, which the SDF captured on Monday. The counter-attack failed.