Syrian government troops backed by Russia and fighters backed by the United States made separate advances against Islamic State on Friday, gaining ground in new offensives that have put unprecedented pressure on the self-declared caliphate.
In neighboring Iraq, government troops also fought for territory in an Islamic State bastion near Baghdad. There was no confirmation of an Iraqi media report that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been wounded in U.S.-led air strikes.
Two years after the ultra-hardline group proclaimed its caliphate to rule over all Muslims from swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, its many foes are advancing on a number of fronts in both countries, with the aim of closing in on its two capitals, Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.
A U.S.-backed militia, the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), launched an offensive last week to capture the last stretch of Turkish-Syrian border still in Islamic State hands and have surrounded the main city in the area, Manbij.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the SDF, which is backed by U.S. air support and special forces, took control of the last route into Manbij on Friday.
Further south, government troops and their allies, backed by Russia, captured a crossroads in Raqqa province that controls a highway leading to Tabqa, an Islamic State-held city on the Euphrates River, and Raqqa city itself, the Observatory and the army said.
The army also launched its advance last week in what media sympathetic to Damascus have described as a “race to Raqqa” – to take territory in Islamic State’s heartland before the U.S.-backed militia get their first.
Over the past two years Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh, has made enemies of all global powers and regional governments. It has imposed harsh rule over millions of people in Syria and Iraq, carried out mass killings and rapes, joined conflicts in Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan and claimed responsibility for deadly attacks in Paris and Brussels.
Attempts to coordinate a campaign against it have been undermined by a five-year multi-sided civil war in Syria and the weakness of the Iraqi state. Still, Washington and other powers hope this year could see assaults on Raqqa and Mosul that would bring the caliphate down.
The SDF advance is the most ambitious yet in Syria by a group allied to Washington, which has previously struggled to develop capable allies on the ground in Syria’s civil war.