ypg fighters, kurds army.jpg
Kurdish YPG Fighters
Photograph: Photo by Kurdishstruggle, used under CC BY

 Powerful Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria on Tuesday announced a push towards the Islamic State extremist group's de facto Syrian capital of al-Raqqa.

The Democratic Forces of Syria (DFS) intend to "liberate" the countryside north of the city, the Hawar News Agency, which is close to Syrian Kurdish forces, reported.

Kurdish official Idriss Nassan, based in the nearby city of Kobane, said the first stage of the campaign will not aim at entering al-Raqqa itself.

The Kurds have pushed the militants out of a swathe of northern Syria since the beginning of last year with intensive US air support, but analysts have questioned whether they would be well placed to capture al-Raqqa which has a mainly Arab population.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that DFS fighters, backed by US-led airstrikes, engaged Islamic State militants in heavy fighting north-west of al-Raqqa early Tuesday.

The announcement comes days after an unusual visit to northern Syria by the head of US armed forces in the Middle East, General Joseph Votel, who met DFS leaders.

The Observatory said the DFS offensive came after leaders received unspecified "promises" from Votel and US officials.

The Kurdish-led forces are positioned about 40 kilometres north of al-Raqqa, which together with Mosul in northern Iraq is thought to be one of the nerve centres of the extremist group's self-declared caliphate.

Kurdish advances on both sides of the border have cut deep into Islamic State's territory but the jihadists are thought to be well entrenched in the two cities.

The Democratic Forces of Syria is a coalition proclaimed by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) and smaller allied Arab groups.

In April, US President Barack Obama announced that he had approved the deployment of an additional 250 troops to Syria to support local forces in the fight against Islamic State.

An initial contingent of about 50 US special forces were sent to Syria late last year.

The US says the new troops will also aim at bolstering the capacity of the Arab components in the DFS.

US support for the Kurdish-led forces has angered the Syrian opposition, which accuses the Kurdish leadership of collaborating with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad - charges it denies.

Meanwhile, the Observatory reported that the death toll from a series of coordinated blasts targeting usually peaceful cities in Syria's regime-held coastal areas the day before has risen to 161. 

The Britain-based monitoring group said that 113 were killed in Jableh and 48 in Tartus. Supporters of Islamic State circulated claims of responsibility in its name on social media.

Four car bombs and five suicide attackers wearing explosive belts hit bus and taxi stations, a hospital, an electricity company office and groups of people in the two cities, according to the Observatory.

The attacks are considered the deadliest in years along the coastal region, which is firmly under government control and hosts hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflict in Syria's inland provinces.

Syria's civil war began in 2011 with peaceful protests, but after a brutal government crackdown it spiralled into a four-way conflict between the al-Assad regime, mostly Islamist rebels including al-Qaeda jihadists, Islamic State, and the Kurds.

The conflict has cost a quarter of a million lives and displaced half the country's population, according to UN estimates.

Latest news

Trump administration reverses transgender bathroom protections

The Trump administration on Wednesday withdrew Obama-era guidance about the use of school and university bathrooms by transgender students, local media reported.

Several Dakota Access Pipeline protesters arrested as deadline passes

Several people at a camp protesting against a controversial oil pipeline in the US state of North Dakota were arrested Wednesday after a deadline to vacate the land passed, local media reported.

Germany deports 18 rejected asylum seekers to Afghanistan

A Kabul-bound plane with 18 Afghan migrants on board took off from Munich Airport late Wednesday, its passengers becoming the third group of rejected asylum seekers to be deported by German authorities back to Afghanistan.

New Romanian justice minister named after anti-corruption protests

Romanian Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu has named a former judge to be the country's next justice minister, after the previous office holder resigned under pressure from mass anti-corruption protests.

Le Pen's chief of staff indicted in European Parliament jobs probe

The chief of staff of Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate for president in upcoming French elections, was indicted Wednesday over allegations of irregular reimbursements from the European Parliament, a judicial source told dpa.

Montenegrin police extradites Miodrag Jovic to Croatia

Montenegrin police reported on Wednesday that they extradited to Croatia Miodrag Jovic (48) from Glina, after whom Interpol Zagreb issued an arrest warrant.

Croatian minister attends CoMoCoSEE conference in Albania

Culture Minister Nina Obuljen Korzinek participated in a third conference of the Council of Ministers of Culture of South-Eastern Europe (CoMoCoSEE) that took place in Tirana on February 21-22.

New Somali president asks al-Shabaab to surrender to 'help' country

Somalia's newly elected President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo asked Islamist terrorist group al-Shabaab to surrender in order "to help rebuild" the conflict-ridden East African nation.

Serbia's EU negotiator says minority rights neglected

The head of the Serbia's European Union accession negotiation team, Tanja Miscevic, said in Novi Sad on Wednesday that minority rights had been neglected for many years and added that positive results in that regard cannot be achieved over night, the Beta news agency has reported. 

Scientists: Nearby star's 7 rocky planets are "best bet" for life

New analysis of telescope data shows a dwarf star just 40 light years from Earth has at least seven apparently rocky planets with potential to harbour water, an international team of scientists announced Wednesday.

Croatian PM receives EIB Vice-President

Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic met on Wednesday with European Investment Bank (EIB) Vice-President Dario Scannapieco for talks on the bank's contribution to a new investment cycle in Croatia and its support to the Croatian government to implement key projects, a press release from the government's office said.

Bomb explodes outside police officer's home in Northern Ireland

A bomb exploded outside a police officer's home in Northern Ireland on Wednesday but there were no immediate reports of casualties.