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SDF, Iraqis Defend Syrian Border Town from IS

FILE - U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters stand on their pickup as the flash victory signs after battling the Islamic State militants, northeast Syria, July 26, 2017.
FILE - U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters stand on their pickup as the flash victory signs after battling the Islamic State militants, northeast Syria, July 26, 2017.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are working closely with the Iraqi army to prevent Islamic State (IS) militants from returning to a key Syrian town on the border with Iraq, an SDF commander told VOA.

Al-Dashisha, a town in al-Hasakah governorate in the far northeastern corner of Syria, has been a key IS stronghold and major corridor for the group to move fighters and resources between Iraq and Syria. It was seized by the SDF in mid-June in a U.S.-led operation announced earlier this month.

"We have established a joint operation and coordination room with the Iraqi army," Shibly Derik, SDF's al-Dashisha commander, told VOA. "We are sharing intelligence information and working together to protect our borders."

The SDF is an umbrella organization of Kurdish and Arab fighters that the U.S. sees as the most effective and reliable group fighting IS in Syria. Last October, the group announced full control over what was the IS de facto capital, Raqqa.

In a press statement Monday, the SDF said it recaptured 600 square kilometers of land on the Syria-Iraq border during its al-Dashisha operation. It said 274 IS fighters were killed, including four women.

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Derik said IS fighters have been desperately trying to regain control over the town and nearby villages because of their strategic significance. He said his forces, in cooperation with the Iraqi border patrol, had foiled several IS counterattacks on the border.

"Very difficult battles have been breaking out in surrounding villages, but we have overcome all of their attacks thanks to our fighters' power and determination," he said, adding the SDF would continue to advance against IS remnants in eastern Syria.

The SDF stopped its fight against IS in eastern Syria and turned westward in mid-March to fight a Turkish incursion in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin. But the forces trickled back to eastern Syria after Turkish forces announced full control over the city.

Turkey considers the U.S.-backed SDF a main threat to its southern border and strongly opposes its growing influence in Syria because of the presence of the Kurdish militant group People's Protection Units, also known as the YPG. Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist organization, alleging the group is linked to Kurdish separatists inside Turkey, known as the PKK, which was designated a terror organization by both the U.S. and the EU.

But the U.S. denies the connections between the PKK and the YPG and considers the YPG to be a key ally in the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State terror group in the region.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this month said Washington welcomed the SDF's al-Dashisha operation and provided diplomatic support to help SDF and the Iraqi army coordinate.

"The fighting over the days ahead will be extremely difficult. We have full confidence in our partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces, and we are proud to work with them to rid Syria from the scourge of ISIS and help build a better future for all Syrians," Pompeo said in the statement, using an acronym for Islamic State.