Syria’s powerful Kurdish militia and allied Arab rebels announced a joint force to take on the Islamic State extremist group, as government troops backed by heavy Russian airstrikes Monday continued their push into rebel-held north-central Syria.
The announcement comes days after the United States, which has backed the Kurds with its air power, cancelled a plan to train Syrian rebels and said it would focus on assisting forces on the ground against the jihadists of Islamic State.
Kurdish official Idriss Nassan said the newly declared Democratic Forces of Syria was intended to expel Islamic State from its de facto capital of al-Raqqa in north-eastern Syria.
A Kurdish source said the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) had received new arms supplies from the US for the first time since jihadists besieged them in the border town of Kobane last year.
They had also been promised intensified air support, the source said.
The main force in the alliance is the YPG, which with US backing has driven the jihadists from wide areas of northern Syria over the past year.
It also includes smaller Arab groups, most of which have previously fought alongside the YPG, who called themselves the Syrian Arab Coalition.
That name has recently been used by US officials to describe the forces they plan to support.
In June, the YPG and its allies captured the border town of Tel Abyad, cutting Islamic State supply lines to the porous Turkish border and reaching within 50 kilometres of al-Raqqa.
However, the YPG would be fighting on hostile ground if it tries to take Arab-populated al-Raqqa, and the Arab forces appear to be a smaller component in the new coalition.
The YPG has poor relations with Syria’s main rebel groups, who distrust its leftist ideology and accuse it of separatism and collaboration with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad – charges it denies.
The announcement was published as Syrian government forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, pushed further into rebel-held territory north of the central city of Hama.
Syrian troops, fighters from the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement and allied militias captured part of Kafr Naboudeh town north-west of Hama, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict.
Russian aircraft launched 40 airstrikes on the area amid the heaviest fighting since the government offensive began on Wednesday, the Britain-based monitoring group said.
The Observatory published pictures of what it said were flyers dropped by government aircraft calling on civilians to leave the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun north of Hama for their safety and make their way across army checkpoints.
The government forces have made limited gains at several points along a 130-kilometre front line stretching from their stronghold in the country’s coastal mountains, east through the fertile al-Ghab plain and as far as the edges of the Syrian desert north-east of Hama.
Rebels – including nationalist and Islamist groups as well as the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda – have brought reinforcements to the front to try to stem the offensive.
They say they have destroyed numerous regime tanks and armoured cars using apparently US-supplied guided missiles.
EU foreign ministers meanwhile called on Russia to halt its strikes against Syrian rebels, saying they were “of deep concern.”
Russia started airstrikes in Syria on September 30 and says it is targeting Islamic State and other extremist groups at the request of its ally al-Assad.
However, most of its strikes appear to have hit areas held by rebel forces ranging from the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda to moderate groups backed by the US, Turkey and Gulf countries.
The Russian intervention comes after a string of defeats for al-Assad’s overstretched forces, who this year lost their last major footholds in Idlib province, adjoining Hama and the coastal stronghold of al-Assad’s Alawite sect.
The conflict, which began with peaceful anti-government demonstrations in 2011, has cost at least 250,000 lives, according to the United Nations. More than half the country’s pre-war population of 22.4 million has been internally displaced or fled abroad.