US military advisers are operating inside the city of Raqqa, Daesh's last major bastion in Syria, a US official said July 12. The troops, many of them Special Operations Forces, are working in an "advise, assist, and accompany" role to support local fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces as they battle Daesh, said Col. Ryan Dillon, a military spokesman.
The troops are not in a direct combat role but are calling in airstrikes and are working closer to the fight than did US forces supporting the Iraqi military in Mosul.
"They are much more exposed to enemy contact than those in Iraq," Dillon said, adding that the numbers of US forces in Raqqa were "not hundreds."
The operation to capture Raqqa began in November and on June 6 the SDF entered the city. With help from the US-led coalition, the SDF this month breached an ancient wall by Raqqa's Old City, where die-hard militants are making a last stand.
SDF fighters among rubble in Raqqa. Photo from VOA.
Dillon said the coalition had seen Daesh increasingly using commercial drones that have been rigged with explosives. The militants employed a similar tactic in Mosul.
"Over the course over the last week or two, it has increased as we've continued to push in closer inside of Raqqa city center," he said.
The US military is secretive about exactly how big its footprint is in Syria, but has previously said about 500 Special Operations fighters are there to train and assist the SDF, an Arab-Kurdish alliance.
Additionally, Marines are operating an artillery battery to help in the Raqqa offensive.
The United States Marine Corps provide fire support to the SDF during the Battle of Raqqa. Photo from USMC.
The UN said July 12 it is using newly opened land routes in Syria to expand food deliveries to areas around Raqqa.
The new access has allowed the World Food Program to deliver food to rural areas north of the city for the first time in three years.
More than 190,000 people have been displaced from and within Raqqa province since April 1, according to the UN refugee agency. In the past 48 hours, hundreds of civilians managed to flee areas under Daesh control and cross to territory seized by SDF, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. As the map of control changes, so is the access and WFP said it is now delivering food every month to nearly 200,000 people in eight hard-to-reach locations inside Raqqa province as well as other areas in a neighboring province.
USMC photo by Sgt. Justin T. Updegraff.
Prior to the reopening of the road linking Aleppo in the west to Hassakeh in the east, the WFP relied on airlifts.
"Replacing airlifts with road deliveries will save an estimated $19 million per year, as each truck on the road carries the equivalent of a planeload of food at a significantly lower cost," said Jakob Kern, the WFP country representative in Syria. "With these cost savings and improved access, we are now reaching more families and people returning to their homes who need our help with regular food deliveries."
One area that is now reachable is the town of Tabqa, which was taken from Daesh by the US-backed SDF in May. WFP said it was able this month to double the number of people it reaches, delivering monthly food rations to 25,000 people, many of whom have returned to their original homes and are now working to rebuild their lives.
In Homs eastern countryside, meanwhile, a Syrian military source said the army recaptured the Al-Hayl oil field, south of Al-Sukhneh city, from Daesh militants, the state-run news agency SANA reported.
SDF in Tabqa. Photo from VOA.
The fight against Daesh is only one facet of the war in Syria, which is now in its seventh year. Six rounds of UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva have failed to bring the warring sides closer to a political settlement.
A seventh round is now underway in the Swiss city, but expectations for a breakthrough are almost non-existent.
July 12, the head of the Syrian opposition delegation accused President Bashar Assad's regime of refusing to engage in political discussions.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photo courtesy of Moscow Kremlin.
Nasr al-Hariri of the High Negotiations Committee also challenged the UN Security Council to "uphold its responsibilities" and maintain pressure on Assad to honor resolutions that the council has passed. He spoke to reporters after emerging from talks with the UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, in the latest round of indirect peace talks. Hariri cited the "continuous refusing" of Assad's government to participate in political negotiations.
Security Council Resolution 2254 from December 2015 called on top UN officials to convene the two sides "to engage in formal negotiations on a political transition process."
Also July 12, a human rights group said Syrian-Russian airstrikes and artillery attacks on a town in southern Syria last month killed 10 civilians in and near a school. Human Rights Watch said one of the airstrikes hit the courtyard of a middle school in the town of Tafas in the southern province of Deraa, killing eight people, including a child. It says most of those killed were members of a family who had been displaced from another town. It said two other civilians, including a child, were killed an hour earlier by artillery attacks near the school.