U.S.-backed Syrian forces battling the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) pushed closer to the Old City in the jihadist stronghold of Raqqa on June 12, a monitor said.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) entered Raqqa for the first time almost a week ago, after months of battle to encircle the city.
In the east of the city, they hold al-Meshleb, captured days after the operation inside the city began, and on June 11 they seized their first district in the west, al-Rumaniya.
On June 12, fighting was continuing on both fronts, with the SDF advancing quickly in the eastern neighborhood of al-Senaa, which leads to the Old City of Raqqa, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
“The SDF forces now control 70 percent of al-Senaa,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
“If they take al-Senaa it will be the most important advance in the battle for Raqqa because it brings them to the center of the city where the most important [ISIL] positions are,” said Abdel Rahman. “When they have captured al-Senaa, the real battle will begin.”
The fighting is expected to become more difficult as the SDF approaches the more densely populated center of the city.
“This fight will be tough,” SDF fighter Berkhdan Qamishli told AFP on June 11. “As we get close to the city center, we’ll be fighting inside multi-story buildings. Urban battles are tougher than fighting in villages, but we will fight until we control the whole city.”
The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), are the backbone of the SDF. Turkey views both groups as terrorists due to their links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party
In the west of the city, SDF forces were battling to enter Hatin, the neighborhood next to al-Rumaniya.
The SDF reported “fierce clashes between fighters and the terrorists” on the two fronts, and said 23 ISIL members had been killed, without specifying in which neighborhood or when.
An SDF source told AFP that fighters had uncovered a series of tunnels dug by ISIL jihadists in al-Meshleb.
“We are moving carefully and cautiously to avoid the huge number of mines that ISIL has planted in the city,” the source added.
An AFP correspondent inside the west of the city on June 11 said the approach was littered with mangled motorcycles and unexploded mortar rounds fired by ISIL.
The bodies of several alleged ISIL fighters could be seen on the empty streets, and SDF fighters appeared on edge over the possibility of ISIL-planted drones and weaponized drones.
Outside the city, fighting was continuing on June 12 on the northern front, the Observatory said, where SDF progress has been slower.
ISIL jihadists are using the “heavily fortified” Division 17 military base outside the northern city limits and an adjacent sugar factory to defend the northern approach into Raqqa, the Observatory said.
Originally a Syrian army base, Division 17 was seized by ISIL in 2014 when it took control of swathes of the wider Raqa province.
ISIL seized Raqqa in 2014, transforming it into the de facto Syrian capital of its self-declared “caliphate.”
It became infamous as the scene of some of the group’s worst atrocities including public beheadings, and it is also thought to have been a hub for the planning of attacks overseas.