A Coalition-partnered anti-ISIS ground fighter looks over Tabqa Dam in northern Syria. Photo: Delil Souleiman | AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region — A "forced withdrawal" of ISIS fighters contributed to the international anti-ISIS coalition-partnered ground forces retaking of the northern Syrian city of Tabqa on Wednesday, the Coalition has announced.
"In Tabqa, the SDF's increased pressure on ISIS from each flank allowed it to accelerate the pace of the fight, clear the final neighborhoods of the city and isolate Tabqa Dam," the Coalition wrote in a statement on Thursday.
"Approximately 70 ISIS fighters conceded to the SDF's [Syrian Democratic Forces] terms, which included the dismantling of IEDs surrounding the dam, the surrender of all ISIS heavy weapons, and the forced withdrawal of all remaining fighters from Tabqa City," it added.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) had reported that some tribes in the Tabqa area mediated a deal last week. The SOHR report stated the ISIS militants were to withdraw from the SDF-held areas into the ISIS-controlled ones, including to Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital in Syria. SOHR has said it relies on local sources on the ground in Syria.
The SDF then denied that a withdrawal had been negotiated.
“All the rumours and circulating news about the liberation of Tabqa and the dam through evacuating the terrorists ... are baseless and far from the reality,” the SDF wrote in a subsequent statement, “compared to the continued battles and intensive clashes both in Sahl Khashab village and the new districts in Tabqa that include the first, second and third districts.”
In addition to the strategic significance of Tabqa because of its air field which was retaken by coalition-partnered ground forces on March 27 and the dam, which separates Lake Assad from the Euphrates River, the coalition claims ISIS had moved fighters from its de facto capital in Raqqa to Tabqa.
"After ISIS's defeat in northern Syria, ISIS moved its foreign fighters and external attack planning operations to Tabqah in order to avoid coalition airstrikes within Raqqah," the statement detailed.
The US Special Presidential Envoy for the Coalition has said that the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) led the retaking of Tabqa.
"Confirmed: ISIS defeated Tabqa Dam and Tabqa City, now in hands of Syrian Democratic Forces, led by its Syrian Arab Coalition," SPE Brett McGurk tweeted early Thursday morning.
The Coalition stated that retaking the hydroelectric dam "prevented a potential humanitarian disaster, and esnured local citizens will continue to receive the dam's basic services."
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirm met in a half-hour, closed-door meeting in London on Thursday, where they both were attending a conference on Somalia.
It is the highest-ranking meeting of diplomats from Ankara and Washington since the US authorized the further arming of Coalition ground forces on Tuesday, ahead of the anticipated Raqqa offensive.
"The secretary reiterated US commitment to protecting our NATO ally," read a State Department statement. "Both leaders affirmed their support for peace and stability in both Iraq and Syria."
There was no immediate statement from Yildirim's office.
Reuters reported it was told by a US official that the United States was looking to boost intelligence cooperation with Turkey to support its fight against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
Turkey considers the PKK to the same as the Peoples' Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, who are a component of the SDF.