US-backed forces launch bid for Syrian IS capital Raqqa
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US-backed forces launch bid for Syrian IS capital Raqqa

Some 30,000 Arab and Kurdish troops begin push as long-awaited operation kicks off with campaign to take surrounding countryside

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) holds a grenade-launcher as he gathers with comrades in the town of Ain Issa, some 50 kilometers north of Raqqa, on November 6, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN)
A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) holds a grenade-launcher as he gathers with comrades in the town of Ain Issa, some 50 kilometers north of Raqqa, on November 6, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN)

RAQQA, Syria — A US-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters said Sunday it had began a long-awaited operation to capture the Islamic State group’s de facto Syrian capital Raqqa.

“The major battle to liberate Raqqa and its surroundings has begun,” Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, a spokeswoman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said at a press conference in Ain Issa, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of the jihadist bastion.

The operation, dubbed “The Wrath of the Euphrates,” comes as Iraqi forces backed by the US-led coalition press an assault to take the jihadist group’s Iraqi stronghold of Mosul.

Ahmed said the fight would involve some 30,000 fighters and had begun on Saturday night.

Jihan Sheikh Ahmed (C), a spokeswoman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), holds a press conference in the town of Ain Issa, some 50 kilometers north of Raqqa, on November 6, 2016, to announce that the US-backed alliance has began a long-awaited operation to capture the Islamic State group's de facto Syrian capital (AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN)
Jihan Sheikh Ahmed (C), a spokeswoman for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), holds a press conference in the town of Ain Issa, some 50 kilometers north of Raqqa, on November 6, 2016, to announce that the US-backed alliance has began a long-awaited operation to capture the Islamic State group’s de facto Syrian capital (AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN)

“Raqqa will be liberated by its sons and Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen factions, heroes under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces, and with the active participation of the (Kurdish) People’s Protection Units… in coordination with the international coalition” led by Washington, a statement read at the press conference said.

Ahmed said the operation planned to free Raqqa from “the forces of global, obscurantist terrorism represented by IS that took (the town) for their presumed capital.”

SDF spokesman Talal Sello told AFP the operation would proceed in two phases, “first liberating the countryside around Raqqa and isolating the city, and secondly taking control of the city.”

He said the SDF had received new weapons from the US-led coalition for the battle, including anti-tank missiles.

“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.

An AFP correspondent in Ain Issa saw dozens of armed SDF fighters heading on vehicles towards the frontline.

The long-awaited operation comes two years after IS seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq and declared its cross-border “caliphate.”

The jihadists have suffered a string of territorial defeats in recent months and are under pressure on multiple fronts.

After launching an offensive on Mosul on October 17, Iraqi special forces pushed into the city on Friday and have been facing stiff resistance from the jihadists.

Complicated battlefield

The loss of Mosul and Raqqa would deprive IS of its largest population centers, undermining the group’s claim to a self-declared “state.”

But capturing the two cities, both still home to large civilian populations, is expected to be a lengthy, and likely bloody, process.

Driving the jihadists from their urban strongholds has been the end-game since a US-led coalition launched air strikes against IS 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.

Shortly after visiting Iraq last month to check on the Mosul offensive, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that an assault on Raqqa would take place “within weeks.”

The idea of simultaneous operations against Mosul and Raqqa “has been part of our planning for quite a while,” he said.

But in Raqqa the battlefront is far more complicated.

After five years of civil war, Syria is divided into a patchwork of fiefdoms, with President Bashar Assad’s regime, IS and a range of opposition forces all holding territory.

Carter singled out the SDF as the coalition’s potential ground partner in the Raqqa offensive and last week the alliance said it would be leading the assault.

Dominated by the powerful Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the SDF has in recent months flushed IS out of swaths of territory in northern Syria, including the flashpoint town of Manbij in August.

Washington has promoted the SDF as a key ally in the fight against IS, but the alliance is complicated by Turkey’s fierce opposition to the YPG.

Ankara considers the militia a terrorist group, and in August launched its own operation inside northern Syria, targeting both IS and the YPG.

Sello said on Sunday 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.

In northern Syria on the Euphrates River, 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.

IS drove out the rebels in January 2014 and five months later declared its self-styled Islamic “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.

Raqqa became the scene of some of IS’s worst atrocities, from stonings and beheadings to the trading of sex slaves.

Thousands of foreign fighters flocked to Raqqa to join IS and US officials have described it as the nerve center for the group’s attacks abroad.

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