Published: Wed, June 07, 2017
World Media | By Shelia Harmon

Battle for IS 'Capital' Raqqa Begins

"We declare today the beginning of the great battle to liberate the city of Raqqa, the alleged capital of terrorism and terrorists", SDF spokesman Talal Sillo said at a news conference, according to The Associated Press. Iraqi forces launched an offensive to capture the northern city of Mosul, the largest in that country held by IS, in October and heavy fighting continues there.

US-backed fighters broke into the city of Raqqa yesterday as they launched a final assault to drive the Islamic State group from its de facto Syrian capital.

The Raqqa campaign commander Rojda Felat said an assault had begun on the al-Mushleb district at the city's south-eastern outskirts, confirming an earlier report by the United Kingdom-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

An official from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) told AP on Monday night that the announcement would be made "within hours". In addition to the Kurdish and Arab forces, about 900 US military troops are on the ground in Syria, mostly functioning in an advisory role for the Syrians and forming a cooperative anti-ISIS force called the Operation Inherent Resolve.

"The fight for Raqqa will be long and hard", Lt. Gen. Steve Townsend, the coalition's commanding general, said in a statement. "ISIL threatens all our nations, not just Iraq and Syria, but in our homelands as well".

After three years, ISIS is firmly entrenched in Raqqa.

The SDF is a multi-ethnic coalition of forces consisting of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Syriacs, Christians, tribal brigades, men and women. The SDF's assault also follows the attacks in London and Manchester for which the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, Daesh, and ISIS, took credit.

That campaign has already threatened to ignite conflict with the coalition against the Islamic State.

The Observatory said the SDF had captured some buildings in the al-Mishlab area and Islamic State fighters had withdrawn from parts of the district. "Morale is high and military readiness to implement the military plan is complete, in coordination with the US-led coalition". Ankara has repeatedly said it would like to be a part of the Raqqa operation if the YPG is discarded but the US has stuck with the Kurdish group in the field.

The SDF includes the powerful Kurdish YPG militia.

Coalition air strikes have killed many civilians in Raqqa and the other IS-held towns along the Euphrates river valley, war monitors and human rights groups have said.

"It will obviously be an operation that is going to be hard going forward and there will be a lot of painstaking efforts to try to avoid civilian casualties as they more in". As forces close in on Raqqa, many fighters are expected to melt into the civilian population, with some forming "sleeper cells" that could hatch new attacks. That suggests it does not intend to challenge the US -backed campaign at Raqqa city.

Thousands of civilians have fled the northern city as the SDF has closed in on it.

"Those who try to escape once SDF forces advance further into the city risk being killed from mines and IS snipers as well as airstrikes", Thomas Garofalo, International Rescue Committee's Middle East director of public affairs, said in a statement.

The anti-IS monitoring group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, which has observers in the city, said airstrikes hit IS targets in the south and center of the city to prevent fighters from sending reinforcements to the eastern front line.

He said the coalition expected IS to use similar tactics to those it had employed during the months-long battle in Mosul, including the use of armored vehicle bombs as its "weapon of choice". "We expect a fight very similar to what we've seen in Mosul", he said, while adding that Raqqa is a much smaller city.

The Raqqa campaign has been the source of tension in ties between the U.S. and Turkey, which lobbied Washington to abandon its support for the YPG.

"We have brought down a Syrian jet in Tel Dakwa area in rural Damascus and we are searching for the pilot", a spokesperson for Western-backed Jaish Osoud al Sharqiya, one of the main rebel groups fighting in the southeast Syrian desert, told Reuters. "From the historical resistance of Kobanê to the liberation of Girê Spî, Hawl and Shaddadi, to the villages of Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, and to the dams in these regions, many historic steps have been taken for the liberation of the people in these regions from the terrorists and the fulfillment of their vital needs within existing resources", the SDF said in a statement.

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