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Executive Summary for May 25th

We review the key developments in Syria, including the destruction of Russian helicopters at a central Syrian air base, an assault by the U.S.-backed SDF near Raqqa and appeals from Syrian aid workers to the international community to protect medical staff.

Published on May 25, 2016 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Four Russian Helicopters Destroyed at Air Base

A series of fires at the government’s T4 air base near Palmyra in central Syria destroyed four Russian helicopters and 20 trucks last week, according to satellite imagery released by the intelligence company Stratfor.

Although Amaq, a news agency linked to the so-called Islamic State, was the first to report the incident, the cause of the fires has yet to be confirmed.

The Russian military has denied claims that it lost the helicopters as the result of an ISIS attack, according to BBC Arabic Syria correspondent Rami Ruhayem.

A nearby fire resulted in the “burning of four Russian attack helicopters and 20 trucks loaded with missiles inside T4 airport in eastern Homs [province],” the report said, leading to speculation that it could have been accidental.

On the same day, ISIS released an image of what it said was one of its fighters firing Grad rockets at T4, which is also known as Tiyas.

“What the imagery tells us is that first of all this was not an accidental explosion, as some of the rumors kept saying,” said Stratfor military analyst Sim Tack.

“It shows very clearly that there are several different sources of explosions across the airport, and it shows that the Russians took quite a bad hit,” he said.

“An entire combat helicopter unit was wiped out – four helicopters in total – as well as some damage to some of the Syrian planes on the airport, and also very notably a logistic depot, likely one that was being used to supply those specific combat helicopters.”

Tack stated it was unclear why ISIS had not officially said it had caused the destruction.

SDF Launches Attack on ISIS Near Raqqa

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched a new assault on ISIS positions near the city of Raqqa on Tuesday, according to a monitoring group.

The SDF alliance is the U.S.-led coalition’s main Syrian partner in the fight against ISIS in Syria. The coalition’s most powerful faction is the Kurdish YPG militia, which has driven ISIS out from large swathes of territory across the country’s north over the past year.

Kurdish officials have not yet indicated when a full assault on Raqqa might take place, according to Reuters, but Kurdish-linked groups have previously said an attack on the predominantly Arab city should be carried out by Arab militias from the SDF.

According to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an unspecified number of SDF fighters were spotted moving south from their stronghold of Tal Abyad, near the Turkish border, toward Ain Issa, a town about 37 miles (60km) northwest of Raqqa city.

Talal Silo, an SDF spokesman, confirmed a military operation had begun Tuesday morning but gave no further details.

The attack follows U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph L. Votel’s visit to northern Syria over the weekend.

After meeting with SDF commanders, the general described the local forces being trained by U.S. special forces as “capable and competent partners.”

“They’re exhibiting their initiative, their innovativeness, their skills [and] their expertise to really make a difference here,” he was quoted to have said by the U.S. Defense Department.

Doctors Appeal for More Protection

Syrian aid workers at the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in Istanbul asked the international community for more protection from deadly attacks, saying that verbal support needs to be translated into action on the ground.

The head of a medical organization working inside Syria said during a speech at the WHS that medical staff are forced to operate on the ground as relentless attacks on them continue.

“Being a doctor inside the country means waiting for death,” said Zedoun al-Zoubi, head of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), which works inside Syria.

“Instead of saving lives, you are concerned all the time about your own life because a doctor is the main target for airstrikes,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Some 10,000 doctors have fled the country since the beginning of the conflict, and just 1,000 are left in opposition areas, al-Zoubi said.

“Everybody knows that hospitals are the safest place in the world in a time of war, but in Syria they are the riskiest place.

“Airstrikes target mainly hospitals not militias,” said al-Zoubi, who was forced to flee Syria in 2013.

Earlier this month, medical aid charity Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) said four of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council had direct ties to attacks on its hospitals in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, according to Reuters.

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