ISIL battles to slow down SDF militia
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) jihadists waged fierce battles yesterday in their Syrian stronghold Raqqa in a bid to repel U.S.-backed fighters advancing towards the walls of the Old City.
The Kurdish and Arab members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) entered Raqqa a week ago, after months of fighting to encircle the northern city that has become a jihadist bastion.
Since then, they have seized one neighborhood in western Raqqa and another in the east, where they are now battling to secure control of the Al-Senaa district that leads to the Old City.
Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, spokeswoman for the SDF campaign for Raqqa, said the jihadist group was putting up stiff resistance.
“There is fierce fighting against Daesh which is making heavy use of mines and snipers and sometimes car bombs,” she told AFP, using the Arabic acronym for ISIL.
She said clashes in Al-Senaa were continuing on June 13. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor also reported heavy ISIL attacks against SDF members in the area.
“The district is not yet completely secured because of the repeated jihadist attacks,” the Britain-based group said.
Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said the capture of Al-Senaa would be the SDF’s “most important advance in the battle for Raqqa because it brings them to the center of the city.”
“The main battle for Raqqa will take place in the city center,” he said.
He added that a large number of IS fighters were holed up in the Old City, where the jihadist group is also believed to have dug tunnels to facilitate their defense of the area.
Since entering Raqqa on June 6, the SDF has captured the eastern neighborhood of Al-Meshleb, as well as Al-Rumaniya in the city’s west.
It is now battling to push from Al-Rumaniya into neighboring Hatin district.
The SDF has yet to enter the city from the north, but on June 12 captured a military base and adjacent factory after days of clashes and heavy air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition against ISIL.
ISIL seized Raqa 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.
An estimated 300,000 civilians were believed to have been living under ISIL rule in Raqqa, including 80,000 displaced from other parts of Syria.
Tens of thousands have fled from the city and its surroundings since the SDF announced the operation to capture the city in November.
The United Nations estimates around 160,000 people remain in the city, where conditions have deteriorated, according to activists.
Bakeries have been forced to close for lack of flour, and residents are experiencing water and electricity outages, activists say.
Civilians also risk being caught in the crossfire, with more than 60 killed in the week since the SDF entered Raqqa, according to the Observatory.