Backed Syrian force launches battle to capture Raqqa

Violet Powell
June 13, 2017

The start of the campaign coincided with the Syrian army's takeover of several villages southwest of Raqqa, as part of a larger offensive by Damascus to take back wide stretches of Syria's eastern desert from Islamic State.

Coinciding with Tuesday's announcement, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battled Islamic State (IS) fighters on fronts west, north and east of Raqqa city. The SDF began its efforts to take Raqqa in November 2016 by seizing control of areas surrounding the city.

The attack on the Al-Mashlab district and on the Division 17 base around 1 km to the north of the city center followed heavy overnight air strikes, the Observatory said.

The fighting will be "fierce because Daesh will die to defend their so-called capital", SDF spokesperson Talal Silo said about the operation which reached Raqqa on Monday.

"We declare today the beginning of the great battle to liberate the city of Raqqa, the alleged capital of terrorism and terrorists", Sillo told a news conference held in northern Syria. The assault on Raqqa will pile more pressure on Daesh's self-declared "caliphate" with the group facing defeat in the Iraqi city of Mosul and being forced into retreat across much of Syria.

The SDF first enters Tabqa on April 24, advancing north and cornering the jihadists in two neighborhoods near the Tabqa dam.

The coalition began its air campaign against IS in Iraq in Aug 2014, expanding its operations to Syria the following month.

He said USA -led coalition forces will continue to support the SDF in Raqqa, providing equipment, training, Intelligence and logistics as well as precision firepower.

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The assault overlaps with the final stages of the US-backed attack to recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul from Daesh.

Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim warned on Tuesday that the country will retaliate immediately if operations in Raqqa presents a threat to Turkey.

The US-led coalition said on Tuesday the fight for Raqqa would be "long and difficult" but would deliver a "decisive blow to the idea of Daesh as a physical caliphate".

"It's hard to convince new recruits that ISIS is a winning cause when they just lost their twin "capitals" in both Iraq and Syria", Townsend told Fox News.

In an earlier statement on Tuesday, the coalition commanding general Lt. Gen Stephen Townsend was quoted as saying that even after Raqqa "there will still be a lot of hard fighting ahead".

The US and its partners train Syrian rebels there to fight IS.

The city is about 90km from the border with Turkey. Though the YPG has been effective fighting smaller ISIS targets, Raqqa will be a huge test for them.

The United States said on Tuesday it had started distributing arms to the YPG to help take Raqqa, part of a plan that has angered NATO-ally Turkey, which is anxious by growing Kurdish influence in northern Syria. As the SDF has drawn closer to the city, reports of civilian casualties in coalition air strikes have swelled. Humanitarian aid organization International Rescue Committee said 200,000 people were still trapped inside, and warned civilians in Raqqa risk being killed by Daesh snipers or mines if they try to flee but could be used by the militants as human shields if they remain.

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