US-backed forces launch operation on ISIL bastion Raqqa
AIN ISSA, Syria
REUTERS photoU.S.-backed rebels said on Nov. 6 they were launching an operation to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The attack ratchets up pressure on the militant group at a critical moment, with its fighters already battling an offensive by Iraqi security forces on their remaining Iraqi stronghold in the northern city of Mosul.
The U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab armed groups, first announced on Nov. 6 that a campaign to retake Raqqa would begin within hours, with U.S. forces providing air cover. Soon afterwards, it said that the operation, called “Wrath of Euphrates,” had begun.
“The general command of the Syria Democratic Forces announces the blessed start of its major military campaign to liberate the city of Raqqa,” Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, an SDF spokeswoman, told a news conference in the Syrian town of Ain Issa.
The SDF called on Raqqa’s civilians to avoid areas where ISIL militants are present and to go to “liberated territory.”
An attack on Raqqa has been long expected, with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter saying on Oct. 25 that the battle to retake it would “overlap” with the assault on Mosul.
The top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Army Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, said last month that the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIL wanted to move urgently to isolate Raqqa because of concerns about the group using the city as a base to plan and launch attacks against targets abroad.
SDF spokesman Talal Sello told AFP the operation would proceed in two phases, first seizing areas around Raqqa and isolating the city, advancing from three fronts, then “taking control of the city” itself.
“The fight will not be easy, and will require accurate and careful operations because IS will defend its bastion knowing that the loss of Raqqa will mean it is finished in Syria,” he said.
Driving the jihadists from their urban strongholds has been the end-game since a U.S.-led coalition launched air strikes against ISIL in the summer of 2014.
The coalition has also provided training and deployed hundreds of advisers to work with Iraqi forces and select Syrian fighters, including the SDF.
Sello said the alliance had received new weapons from the coalition for the Raqqa battle, including anti-tank missiles.
And a SDF source said 50 US military advisers would be involved in the operation, particularly to guide U.S.-led coalition air strikes.
Washington has promoted the SDF as a key ally in the fight against ISIL, but the alliance is complicated by Turkey’s opposition to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which dominates the SDF.
Ankara considers the YPG as tan offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), hence a terrorist group, and in August launched its own operation inside northern Syria, targeting both ISIL and the YPG.
Sello said on Nov. 6 that the SDF had “agreed definitively” with the United States “that there will be no role for Turkey or the armed factions allied with it in the operation” to capture Raqqa.
Raqqa was home to some 240,000 residents before 2011 and more than 80,000 people have fled there from other parts of the war-torn country.
It was the first provincial capital to fall from government control when rebels captured it in March 2013, two years after an uprising against Assad began.
ISIL drove out the rebels in January 2014 and five months later declared its self-styled Islamic “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.