HUKOUMIYA – The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on Tuesday it had launched an operation to capture Raqqa, Islamic State’s de facto Syrian capital, piling pressure on the jihadists whose self-declared caliphate is in retreat across Syria and Iraq.
SDF spokesman Talal Silo told Reuters the battle started on Monday and the fighting would be fierce “because Daesh [Islamic State] will die to defend their so-called capital”.
The assault overlaps with the final stages of the US-backed attack to recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State. It follows months of advances to the north, east and west of Raqqa by the SDF, which includes Arab and Kurdish militias.
Islamic State captured Raqqa from rebel groups in 2014 and has used it as an operations base to plan attacks in the West. Silo said the assault had begun from the north, east and west of the city, which is bordered to the south by the River Euphrates.
The commander of the Raqqa campaign, Rojda Felat, told Reuters SDF fighters were attacking the al-Mishlab district at the city’s southeastern outskirts, confirming an earlier report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“The coalition has a big role in the success of the operations. In addition to warplanes, there are coalition forces working side by side with the SDF,” Silo said by phone from the Hukoumiya farms area, ten km north of Raqqa, where the SDF later declared the start of the assault.
A Reuters witness at the location could hear the sound of heavy shelling and air strikes in the distance.
The US-led coalition said the fight for Raqqa would be “long and difficult” but would deliver a “decisive blow to the idea of ISIS [Islamic State] 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,” Lt Gen Steve Townsend, the coalition commanding general, said in a coalition statement.
“We all saw the heinous attack in Manchester, England,” said Townsend. “ISIS threatens all of our nations, not just Iraq and Syria, but in our own homelands as well. This cannot stand.”
“Once ISIS is defeated in both Mosul and [Raqqa], there will still be a lot of hard fighting ahead,” he said.
From Monday afternoon to Tuesday afternoon, coalition warplanes and artillery hit IS boats, tactical units, fighting positions, vehicles and a weapons store, spokesman Col Ryan Dillon said.
The coalition struck 19 boats that jihadists were using to ferry fighters and equipment across the Euphrates – their only means of accessing the city from land they control on the south bank, he said.
Security officials in the West have warned of increased threat of attacks such as last month’s Manchester suicide bombing and Saturday’s attack in London as Islamic State loses ground in Syria and Iraq. Both attacks were claimed by Islamic State.
An Arab group fighting with the SDF, the Syrian Elite Forces, which was established in February, had entered al-Mishlab with coalition air support, its spokesman Mohammed al-Shaker said by phone.
“The Syrian Elite Forces one or two hours ago entered the first quarter of Raqqa, which is al-Mishlab quarter, via the eastern front,” he said.
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. The Observatory also said an attack was underway against a military barracks, Division 17, on the northern outskirts of Raqqa.
The US-led coalition has said 3,000-4,000 Islamic State fighters are thought to be holed up in Raqqa city, where they have erected defences against the anticipated assault. The city is about 90 km from the border with Turkey.
The SDF includes the powerful Kurdish YPG militia.
Fighting around Raqqa since late last year has displaced tens of thousands of people, with many flooding camps in the area and others stranded in the desert.