200,000 civilians may be trapped in Raqqa as U.S.-backed force attacks Islamic State's capital

AP, Reuters

A U.S.-backed Syrian force said Tuesday it has begun an offensive to capture the northern city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State group, after months of clearing operations. An American commander said the battle will be long and difficult, but success would deliver a decisive blow to the idea of IS as a physical caliphate.

By early afternoon, opposition activists said U.S.-backed fighters were trying to break into the city from the east, triggering intense clashes.

Raqqa was among the first cities captured by IS, in January 2014, and has been the home of some of the group’s most prominent leaders. The battle for the city is expected to be extended and bloody, and could mark a major turning point in the war against the extremists.

Talal Sillo, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, told reporters that operations have begun in coordination with the U.S.-led coalition.

“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. “Morale is high and military readiness to implement the military plan is complete, in coordination with the U.S.-led coalition.”

SDF fighters began advancing toward Raqqa in November, capturing wide areas of northern Syria from the extremists. Last week, they reached the northern and eastern gates of the city after intense clashes under the cover of U.S.-led airstrikes.

Raqqa is currently surrounded from the east, north and west, and opposition activists have reported intense shelling and airstrikes on the city since Monday night, which killed at least 12 people.

IS militants are not expected to give up easily. Iraqi forces launched an offensive to capture the northern city of Mosul, the largest held by IS, in October, and heavy fighting is still underway there.

Lt. Gen. Steve Townsend, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the twin offensives against Mosul and Raqqa are hurting the Islamic State group’s prestige and ability to recruit new loyalists.

“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 said, referring to IS by another acronym.

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

“We all saw the heinous attack in Manchester, England,” said Townsend, referring to a bombing that killed 22 people last month and was claimed by IS. “ISIS threatens all of our nations, not just Iraq and Syria, but in our own homelands as well. This cannot stand.

“The International Coalition and our partner forces are steadily dismantling the physical caliphate of ISIS,” said Townsend. “Once ISIS is defeated in both Mosul and Raqqa, there will still be a lot of hard fighting ahead, but this coalition is strong and committed to the complete annihilation of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.”

Townsend added that once Raqqa is retaken, the SDF have stated it will be turned over to a representative body of local civilians who will provide security and governance.

The U.S.-SDF partnership has complicated relations with Turkey, which views the group’s Kurdish component as an extension of a terror group operating inside its own borders.

Turkey has remained hostile to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known by their Kurdish acronym the YPG, which form the backbone of the SDF. The YPG are close to the Kurdish PKK insurgent group in Turkey, which is designated as a terror organization by NATO and the U.S.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Tuesday his country will respond if an offensive by the SDF on Raqqa poses a security threat to Turkey. He criticized the United States for launching the Raqqa offensive with SDF.

IS stormed across large areas in Syria and Iraq in 2014, declaring a self-styled Islamic caliphate. But it has lost much of that territory over the past two years following grueling campaigns by an array of Syrian and Iraqi forces. The fighting has devastated communities in both countries and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes.

IS has been fortifying its positions in Raqqa for months, setting up barriers and hanging sheets of cloth over main streets to provide cover from warplanes. A belt of land mines and militant checkpoints circle the city.

The humanitarian NGO International Rescue Committee said it is deeply concerned for the safety of civilians in the city, adding that the number of people escaping Raqqa has dropped. That may indicate that IS “intends to use the 200,000 people still trapped in the city as human shields,” the group reported.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy clashes on the edge of Raqqa’s eastern neighborhood of Mashlab as well as inside Division 17, a former Syrian army base now controlled by IS north of the city. It said SDF fighters captured several buildings in Mashlab.

Earlier Tuesday, state news agency SANA reported that the airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition killed 12, including women and children. It said the families were fleeing the city in boats across the Euphrates River ahead of an expected all-out attack by the SDF.

The Observatory said 21 people were killed in the Monday night airstrikes. It said they were likely carried out by the U.S.-led coalition.

The U.S.-led coalition also struck Islamic State fighters crossing the Euphrates to support their comrades in Raqqa on the first day of the battle to drive the jihadis from the city, the coalition’s spokesman said on Tuesday.

Over months of fighting to the north, west and east of Raqqa, the SDF has with coalition air, artillery, intelligence and logistics support, isolated it against the Euphrates.

As the SDF began to push into districts of Raqqa city on Tuesday, the coalition used both air and artillery strikes to hit Islamic State defenses, its spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon said by phone.

Between Monday afternoon and Tuesday afternoon, the coalition struck IS tactical units, destroyed 19 boats, 12 fighting positions, eight vehicles and a weapons store, he said.

Although IS still controls the south bank of the Euphrates opposite Raqqa, coalition airstrikes in recent months have destroyed the bridges connecting it to the city.

“This is not the first time we have struck barges and water craft that have moved across the river to support the operations that ISIS is doing in and around Raqqa,” Dillon said, referring to IS.

The 19 boats hit on Tuesday carried fighters and equipment, he added.

Coalition air strikes have killed many civilians in Raqqa and the other IS-held towns along the Euphrates river valley, war monitors and human rights groups have said. The coalition says it tries hard to avoid civilian casualties and investigates any that are reported.

The battle to defeat IS in Mosul has already lasted months and the coalition expects the jihadis to use equally fierce tactics to defend their next-largest possession, Dillon said.

The coalition estimates that 3,000-4,000 IS fighters are in Raqqa and about 200,000 civilians.

“They have had three years to establish their defenses there. We expect a fight very similar to what we’ve seen in Mosul,” he said, while adding that Raqqa is a much smaller city.

The militants’ “weapon of choice” is the armored car bomb, driven by a suicide attacker at defensive positions or concentrations of forces, Dillon said. Protective plates welded to such vehicles stop light arms fire aimed at killing the driver or exploding the bomb prematurely.

“We have clearly seen some of the tactics that they use when it comes to using human shields or herding civilians,” he added.

The SDF has encouraged people to leave Raqqa to escape that fate, he said, and has established screening sites at forward battle lines to separate civilians from disguised fighters.

Beyond Raqqa, IS still holds the eastern part of the Euphrates valley running to the Iraqi border and swathes of desert to the south.

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.”