U.S.-backed forces fighting ISIS near the Syrian-Turkish border said on Thursday they had reached the militants’ last main route in and out of their stronghold in the area, the city of Manbij, as a French official confirmed that French special forces are offering training and advice to fighters in northern Syria.
Monitors confirmed that the Syria Democratic Forces – an alliance which includes the powerful Kurdish YPG militia and Arab allies – had advanced to within firing distance of the road, one week into a campaign to push the militants out of their foothold along the frontier.
Washington hopes the operation will choke off ISIS’s last major link to the outside world – the militants have used the border for years to receive supplies and manpower, and more recently to send back fighters for terrorist attacks in the European continent.
“We have reached the road that links Manbij and Aleppo, from the west,” Sharfan Darwish, spokesman for SDF-allied Manbij Military Council, told Reuters.
Darwish appeared to be referring to the highway between Manbij and ISIS-held al-Bab, further west. That highway also leads onto Aleppo.
A statement from the Manbij Military Council said its forces had already cut ISIS supply lines leading north, east and south from the city, and were now close enough to Manbij itself to be able to fire on ISIS extremists.
Darwish would not comment on whether the SDF was planning an assault on the city itself. He told Reuters on Wednesday forces was poised to enter, but were being cautious due to the civilian presence there.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the SDF were in firing range of the main road leading west, positioned less than a kilometer away from it. They were effectively in control of all highways into Manbij, it said.
Civilians in the city and surrounding countryside were fleeing the fighting, the Observatory added.
It said more than 130 ISIS militants had died since the Manbij offensive was launched, as well as more than 20 SDF fighters.
The U.S. military said on Wednesday the SDF had suffered about a dozen killed and more than 100 wounded.
The official with the French Defense Ministry said Thursday French forces are with SDF.
“The offensive at Manbij is clearly being backed by a certain number of states including France. It’s the usual support — it’s advisory,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said. He did not provide other details.
In a round-table interview last week, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French forces were participating. “We are helping with arms, we are helping with aerial support, we are helping with advice,” he said.
The U.S. also has around 300 Special Forces embedded with the SDF in northern Syria.
The SDF, which is also fighting against ISIS in neighboring Raqqa province, is backed by U.S.-led air strikes and assisted by U.S. special forces.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s state-run news agency said the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and Turkish artillery fire against ISIS targets in Syria have killed 18 militants.
Anadolu Agency, quoting unnamed security officials, said that the ISIS targets were attacked after Turkish authorities on Wednesday determined that the group was preparing to strike Turkey from northern Syria.
It said Turkish and coalition strikes also destroyed two gun-mounted vehicles, various mortar and artillery positions as well as a building used as a defense shelter.