'Optimism far from reality': Moscow dismisses West's ‘rosy forecasts’ on Raqqa offensive
The "very hard but essential" battle for Raqqa is just days away, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian claimed on Friday.
"France has always said that [liberating] Raqqa is the main aim. Today, we can say that Raqqa is surrounded and the battle will begin in the coming days," he told France's CNEWS television.
Moscow does not share the "optimism" of the French official, Russia's Defense Ministry said Saturday. Having questioned Le Drian's sources for such a prognosis, the Russian ministry's spokesman, Igor Konashenkov, said it had "nothing to do with reality and the situation on the ground."
"Similar rosy forecasts on encircling and the quick victory of the coalition in Iraq's Mosul have already turned into considerable losses in the Iraqi forces and a growing humanitarian catastrophe," the Russian military official warned.
"It is clear to any military specialist that liberating Raqqa will not be easy for the international coalition. The real success and timescale of the operation will directly depend on [the coalition's] understanding the need to and readiness to coordinate its actions with all forces fighting international terrorism in Syria," Konashenkov told the media.
Operation Euphrates Rage
Washington has been backing the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multi-ethnic, but predominantly Kurdish alliance of forces. With the US-led coalition's support, the SDF launched an offensive known as Operation Euphrates Rage to encircle and retake Raqqa in northern Syria from Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) terrorist group in November last year.
Based on various estimates, up to 4,000 Islamic terrorists might be currently based in Raqqa, described as the terrorist group's "capital" in Syria. Some 300,000 people live in the city, located on the banks of the River Euphrates, 160 kilometers (100 miles) to the east of Aleppo.
There are hundreds of US troops on the ground in Syria supporting the SDF, with an additional 1,000 personnel possibly to be deployed to north of the country under provisional plans drawn up by the Pentagon, AFP reported last week, citing a US official.
Stepped up offensive
The offensive to liberate the city, captured by IS militants in 2013, has intensified this week, when additional US and Syrian opposition forces have been airdropped to the Raqqa province. In a joint operation, several villages were reported to had been freed from the terrorists.
The SDF also managed to establish control over key sectors of the road which connects Raqqa to Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor, Sputnik reported, citing an SDF Friday statement. "Intense fighting" was under way between SDF forces and IS militants to the northwest of the terrorists stronghold, the statement added.
The alliance was also focused on a strategically important town of Tabqa near Raqqa, with a dam and an airport nearby, AFP reported. This week, the SDF with air and fire support by US military, have reached the dam's entrance through clashes with IS militants. Reporting on the operation's advances, spokesperson for the SDF's Raqqa operation, Jihan Sheikh Ahmed still warned that "the liberation of Raqqa will take several months."
Earlier in the week, another SDF spokesperson, Talal Selo, said in an interview with Syrian daily Al-Watan that no more than two weeks were needed to block Raqqa and start liberating the city.
The jihadists and their stronghold in northern Syria also have been under attack from Russia's military, who have been supporting the Syrian Army in fighting IS terrorists.
The city of Dayr Hafir in the Aleppo province, which was IS’s last major stronghold on the Syrian army's way to Raqqa, was put under government control on Friday after a series of bitter clashes with the militants, Sputnik reported, citing its source on the ground.
US military presence 'does not serve fight against terrorism' – Syria
The Syrian chief negotiator at peace talks in Geneva, Bashar al-Ja'afari, called the US or any other country's military presence in Syria illegitimate, unless coordinated with the government in Damascus.
"Any military presence on our territory without the approval of the Syrian government is an illegitimate presence," he told reporters on Friday, after meeting with the UN envoy on Syria Staffan de Mistura. "Those who are truly fighting Daesh [IS] are the Syrian Arab army with the help of our allies from Russia and Iran," he added, saying that Washington's presence and "arming factions in Syria and encouraging them to challenge the authority of the state does not serve the fight against terrorism."
Turkey participation controversy
Another player on the scene, Turkey, whose military have been providing air cover for fighters in Syria battling the jihadi militants, is also involved in a controversy regarding the Raqqa operation.
A rift has opened up between NATO allies US and Turkey over the part Syrian Kurdish forces should play in the liberation of Raqqa from the terrorists. While Ankara has expressed willingness to be involved in freeing the city by applying its "successful model" of fighting terrorism in Syria, it at the same time rejected taking part in any operation that would involve the Kurds.