U.S. sees fate of up to 40,000 civilians at stake in Syria offensive

A woman runs holding a walkie-talkie towards a damaged site after an airstrike on the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria May 31, 2016. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An offensive by U.S.-backed fighters in Syria to clear a strip of land along the Turkish border would free up to 40,000 civilians from Islamic State control if successful, the U.S. military said on Friday in its first briefing on the operation.

The assault around the Syrian city of Manbij, backed by U.S.-led coalition air strikes and a contingent of American special forces, aims to help cut off Islamic State’s last major stretch of the Syrian-Turkish frontier by seizing territory in northern Syria west of the Euphrates River.

Colonel Patrick Ryder, a spokesman at the U.S. military’s Central Command, said the mostly Arab force had made significant advances since the start of the offensive this week.

“They are facing some heavy resistance from ISIL, which is to be expected ... But so far the progress and the momentum is going in the right direction,” Ryder said, using another acronym for the militant group.

Perhaps crucial for ally Turkey, the operation comprises mostly Syrian Arabs instead of forces drawn from Kurdish YPG militias, which Ankara views as terrorists.

Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan signaled his apparent tacit support for the latest advance on Thursday, saying he had been informed that most of the fighters involved would be Arabs rather than Kurds.

Ryder estimated the some 3,000 Syrian Arabs participating in the campaign represented 85 percent of the total force, many of them drawn from local populations in the Manbij area. U.S. officials have previously described the other fighters as YPG militia.

Ryder said a group calling itself the Manbij Military Council, which was a component of the Syrian Arab Coalition, was leading the effort.

“They are from this area so in effect they are liberating their home town from ISIL,” Ryder said.

Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Tom Brown and James Dalgleish