TABQA - US-backed fighters hunted for militant holdouts in Syria’s Tabqa on Thursday after overrunning the city and nearby dam in a step forward for their advance on Islamic State group stronghold Raqa.

The Syrian Democratic Forces scored one of their biggest victories against IS militants as controversy intensified over a US decision to arm the alliance’s Kurdish component.

The SDF was conducting clearance operations after seizing Tabqa and the nearby dam on Wednesday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“The SDF were able to deploy onto the dam itself during the night,” the Observatory’s Rami Abdel Rahman said. “But civilians are still unable to enter some parts of Tabqa because of explosives” left by IS.

The US military command in the Middle East, Centcom, confirmed the “liberation” of Tabqa.

“The SDF’s increased pressure on ISIS from each flank allowed it to... clear the final neighbourhoods of the city and isolate Tabqa dam,” said Centcom, referring to IS.

The Arab-Kurdish alliance accepted IS’s surrender to protect civilians and the dam, it said, adding “the coalition tracked fleeing fighters and targeted those that could be safely hit”.

Situated on the Euphrates River about 55 kilometres (35 miles) upstream from Raqa, Tabqa is a key waypost in the operation to capture the militants’ de facto Syrian capital.

Operation Wrath of the Euphrates has seen the SDF capture large swathes of territory north of Raqa and at their closest point its fighters are just eight kilometres (five miles) from the city. It is now working to tighten the noose before a final assault.

The battle for Tabqa was marked by fears that fighting could damage the nearby dam - Syria’s largest - with the potential for catastrophic flooding.

Technicians fled the dam as fighting intensified in recent days, a source who works closely with them told AFP.

A repair team was on standby on Thursday, awaiting permission from the SDF, which was still clearing mines, to enter and assess any damage to the structure. An AFP correspondent saw SDF fighters distributing sweets to their comrades as they celebrated at the dam overlooking Lake Assad, a large reservoir created by the facility in the 1970s.

Pentagon chief, Turkish

PM meet after

decision to arm Kurds

Pentagon chief Jim Mattis said Thursday he had “no doubt” that Turkey and the United States would work out any differences arising from the US decision to arm Kurdish fighters in Syria.

That decision, announced Tuesday, has led to public statements of anger from Turkey, which says the US-backed Kurdish YPG fighters battling the Islamic State group in Syria are linked to its own domestic Kurdish separatist group the PKK, or Kurdish Workers Party.

“I have no doubt that Turkey and the United States will work this out with due considerations, significant attention paid to Turkey’s security to NATO’s security and the continuing campaign against ISIS,” Mattis said, using an alternate acronym for IS.

Mattis’ remarks to reporters traveling with him followed an approximately 30-minute meeting in London with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, the highest-profile face-to-face conversation between US and Turkish officials since the announcement.

“We agree 100 percent with Turkey’s concern about PKK, a named terrorist group. It is conducting an active insurgency in Turkey, it has orchestrated the killing of innocent Turkish civilians and Turkish soldiers, and we support Turkey in its fight against PKK as a fellow NATO member, just like all the NATO countries stand with Turkey against the PKK,” Mattis said.

“We do not ever give weapons to the PKK, we never have and never will.”

YPG fighters backed by US-led coalition air strikes and training have carried out much of the ground war against IS in Syria, and have recaptured a series of towns and villages in the country’s north.

The focus is now on Raqa, the de-facto Syrian capital of IS’s self-proclaimed “caliphate.”

The city is largely surrounded and it is only a matter of time before YPG and other forces in a Kurdish-Syrian Arab alliance launch an offensive against the city.

A first consignment of US weapons is already in place for delivery and could be dispatched to the Kurds “very quickly,” US Colonel John Dorrian said Wednesday.

Mattis and Yildirim met ahead of the start of a Somalia conference in London.

“I would characterize it as the usual sort of honest, transparent and helpful discussion between two long-term NATO allies on issues that directly impact the security of the NATO alliance, directly impact the security of Turkey and how we work out the way ahead in regards to the continued offensive against ISIS,” Mattis said.

 The SDF is dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), seen by the US as an indispensable ally in the fight against IS but considered a “terrorist group” by Turkey.

YPG video footage on Thursday showed half a dozen fighters and youths dancing in Tabqa, and children calling out excitedly: “The dam has been liberated”. Washington has stepped up its support for the YPG in recent days, announcing it would arm the Kurdish fighters in a break with its previous policy of arming only the SDF’s Arab fighters.

The move has infuriated NATO ally Ankara. The US-led coalition said a first consignment of weapons was already in place for delivery and could be dispatched to the Kurds “very quickly”.

The arms include heavy machineguns to be used against IS truck bombs, mortars, small arms and ammunition, as well as armoured vehicles and equipment to detect landmines, said coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian.

“Every single one of these weapons that are being provided to our partner force, we intend to account for them, and to ensure that they are pointed at ISIS,” he added.

But Washington’s reassurances failed to assuage Ankara, which regards the YPG as the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a deadly insurgency inside Turkey since 1984.

“YPG and PKK are both terror groups, there is no difference at all between them. They only have different names,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

On Thursday, Pentagon chief Jim Mattis met with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in London, although it was not immediately clear if they discussed the arming of the YPG.

The issue is set to dominate talks between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his American counterpart Donald Trump next week, the first meeting between the two heads of state.

“I hope very much that this mistake will be reversed immediately,” Erdogan said.

In fighting elsewhere on Thursday, government forces gained ground in the capital’s Qabun district, as the regime presses efforts to push insurgents into an evacuation deal and to clear Damascus of armed groups, the Observatory said.