US-backed Syrian militia move to retake ISIS ‘capital’ Raqqa with American air cover

Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters walk on the rubble of damaged shops and buildings in the city of Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, August 10, 2016. © Rodi Said
A US-backed Syrian militia group has launched a campaign to retake the city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) in the country. The assault is to begin within hours, with cover from the US Air Force.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, said some 30,000 fighters are to take part in the operation.

The operation, called Angry Euphrates, was announced earlier Sunday by SDF commanders at a press conference in the Syrian town of Ain Issa, about 60 kilometers northwest of Raqqa.

"The general command of the Syria Democratic Forces announces the blessed start of its major military campaign to liberate the city of Raqqa," Jehan Sheikh Amad, an SDF spokeswoman, said.

According to the group, the goal of the operation is to "isolate and then topple the capital of international terrorism" Raqqa, meaning that the city will, first, be surrounded by SDF forces before they to capture it.

The group had set up a command center to coordinate with the US-led coalition.

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter applauded plans by the Syrian Democratic Forces to surround Islamic State in Raqqa.

“I welcome today's announcement by the SDF that the operation to free Raqqa from ISIL's barbaric grip has begun," he said.

"The effort to isolate, and ultimately liberate, Raqqa marks the next step in our coalition campaign plan," Carter added.

The Defense Secretary promised that "the international coalition will continue to do what we can to enable local forces in both Iraq and Syria to deliver IS the lasting defeat it deserves."

The White House envoy to the US-led military coalition against IS, Brett McGurk, later confirmed that Washington will be providing air support for the SDF operation.

The SDF is a militia alliance formed in 2015 with the goal of battling Islamic State. The Syrian YPG Kurdish force, one of Syria’s most powerful militias, is regarded as the backbone of the alliance.
Announcing their offensive, the group urged Raqqa civilians to avoid area where Islamic State militants are present and move to "liberated territory."

Reports say that militants within the city have begun putting up fortifications in preparation for the SDF assault and have reportedly forbidden the residents from leaving. They have also mined the approaches to the city and set up a network of checkpoints along them.

The SDF announcement comes amid the ongoing operation to liberate another IS stronghold – the city of Mosul in Iraq. Mosul, now the self-proclaimed capital of Islamic State in Iraq, was captured by the terrorists back in 2014. The Iraqi Army, along with a number of local militias, started the offensive to retake the city on October 17. Some 30,000 soldiers and militiamen backed by the US-led international coalition are taking part in the advance.

Since it was formed in early 2015, the SDF has seized large swathes of territory along the Syria-Turkey border and pushed IS back to within 30 kilometers (18 miles) of Raqqa, a provincial capital on the Euphrates River in Syria’s largely desert east. 

Several hundred US Special Forces operatives were sent into Syria earlier this year to “advise and assist” the SDF.

The United States considers the YPG the most effective force against IS, but Turkey has repeatedly said it will not accept a role for the Kurds in the liberation of Raqqa. Ankara, a key US ally in the region, regards the Syrian Kurds as terrorists allied with Kurdish insurgents inside Turkey.

“Our hope is that the Turkish state will not interfere in the internal affairs of Syria,” an unidentified SDF official declared at Sunday’s press conference. “Raqqa will be freed by its own sons,” he added.

Neither Turkey nor the United States has yet commented on SDF’s announcement.

US officials have previously acknowledged that liberating Raqqa will pose tougher political challenges than liberating Mosul, given Syria’s political and military landscape. However, the commander of anti-IS coalition forces, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, said last week that no matter what, the Kurds will be an important part of the operation. “The facts are these: The only force that is capable on any near-term timeline is the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are a significant portion. So, we’re negotiating; we’re planning; we’re having talks with Turkey, and we’re gonna take this in steps,” he said. 

Raqqa has a population of roughly 300 thousand people. It is located some 520 kilometers from Damascus.