Islamic State insurgents faced major assaults on two fronts in both Iraq and Syria on Wednesday in what could prove to be some of the biggest operations to roll back their caliphate since they proclaimed it in 2014.
In Syria, U.S.-backed militia with thousands of Arab and Kurdish fighters were reported to have captured villages near the strategically-important Turkish border after launching a major operation to cut off Islamic State's last access route to the outside world.
In Iraq, Prime Minister Haider Abadi ordered his troops to slow an advance at the gates of Falluja, Islamic State's closest redoubt to the capital Baghdad, to limit harm to civilians, two days after the army poured into rural areas on the city's outskirts.
Both operations are unfolding with the support of a U.S.-led coalition that has been targeting the ultra-hardline Sunni Muslim militants, who proclaimed a caliphate to rule over all Muslims from territory in the two neighboring countries.
The Syrian operation includes American special forces operating in advisory roles on the ground. In Iraq, the U.S.-led coalition has provided air support to government forces who are also assisted by Iranian-backed Shi'ite militia.
While there is no indication that the two advances were deliberately timed to coincide, they show how a variety of enemies of Islamic State have been mobilizing in recent months in what Washington and other world powers hope will be a decisive year of battle to destroy the group's pseudo-state.
The Syrian operation, which began on Tuesday after weeks of preparations, aims to drive Islamic State from the last stretch of the frontier with Turkey it controls.
"It's significant in that it's their last remaining funnel" to Europe, a U.S. military official told Reuters. Islamic State has used the border for years to receive material and recruits from the outside world, and, more recently, to send militants back to Europe to carry out attacks.
An 80-km stretch of terrain north of the town of Manbij is the only part of the Turkish frontier still accessible to the militants after advances by Kurdish fighters and President Bashar al-Assad's government elsewhere.
The assault is being carried out by an alliance known as the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), which is composed of a powerful Kurdish militia called the YPG, and Arab combatants that have allied themselves with it.
Falluja has been a bastion of the Sunni Muslim insurgency against both the Shi'ite-led Baghdad government and U.S. troops, who fought the biggest battles of their 2003-2011 occupation there. Islamic State fighters, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, raised their flag in the city in 2014 before sweeping through Iraq's north and west.
Abadi first announced plans to assault Falluja 10 days ago. But with 50,000 civilians still believed trapped inside the city, the United Nations has warned that militants are holding hundreds of families in the center as human shields.
Russian airstrikes have severely damaged oil facilities controlled by the terrorist group Daesh, also known as IS/Islamic State, in Syria's al-Hasakah Province, according to the Russian military.
The strikes caused a large fire to break out in the factory.
On Tuesday, Russian Su-34s destroyed a series of oil production facilities near Raqqa, the terrorist groups self-proclaimed capital and an alleged waypoint for illegal oil making its way into Turkey.
NATO confirmed its intention to rotate groups of troops through Central and Eastern Europe to ward off fears about Russia, its secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, said in Warsaw on Tuesday, while stressing the alliance doesn’t want a “new Cold War” with Moscow.
Stoltenberg was in the Polish capital to make preparations for the July NATO summit, which will tackle the issue of how to allocate alliance forces to better protect new member countries worried about the security threat posed by Russia.
“We see a more assertive Russia, intimidating its neighbors and changing borders by force,” Stoltenberg said at a joint press conference with Polish Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz.
The Polish minister confirmed that Poland and the Baltic states would host four rotating battalions and that he talked with Stoltenberg about permanently stationing weapons stores in Poland, “which is crucially important for us and strengthens our sense of security.”
Speaking later at Warsaw University, the NATO chief said: “Our military planners have put forward proposals for several battalions in different countries in the region. We are now discussing the exact numbers and the exact locations. And we will take those decisions at the summit in Warsaw. This enhanced forward presence, combined with the ability to deploy NATO forces quickly, will send a clear message. An attack on Poland — or any other ally — will trigger a response from the entire alliance.”
Stoltenberg said NATO isn’t looking for a confrontation with Russia. “We don’t want a new Cold War,” he said. “Our aim is a more positive and a more cooperative relationship with Russia. At the very least, we must work towards a relationship that is more predictable.”
NATO has already enlarged its quick reaction force and added eight new small headquarters in the east of the alliance, he said.
Twitter users are expressing their support for people’s right to use so-called “hate speech” on social media, after the European Union (EU) announced they are working with Facebook and others to censor unwanted online speech within 24 hours.
Of the 2,099 Syrian refugees admitted so far this year, six (0.28 percent) are Christians, 2,043 (97.3 percent) are Sunni Muslims. The remaining 50 are 17 (0.8 percent) Shi’a, 30 (1.4 percent) other Muslims and 10 (0.47 percent) Yazidis.
Similar proportions are seen in the number of Syrian refugees having arrived in the U.S. since the start of fiscal year 2016: 2,773 in total, comprising 12 (0.4 percent) Christians, 2,703 (97.4 percent) Sunnis, 17 (0.6 percent) Shi’a, 30 (1.1 percent) other Muslims and 10 (0.3 percent) Yazidis.