As US forces advance on Islamic State capital in Syria, civilians brace for a siege

AMMAN: American-backed Syrian forces advanced from the southwest of Raqqa city this week in an effort to fully encircle the capital of the Islamic State caliphate in Syria, while civilians inside brace themselves for a siege and take cover from coalition airstrikes.

Raqqa city is currently encircled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to the west, north and east. To the south, across the Euphrates River, lies IS territory—a swathe of desert peppered with small villages and towns.

The SDF, made up of Kurdish and Arab Syrian forces, has been moving to surround and capture Raqqa for the past six months with the support of the United States-backed anti-Islamic State coalition.

That support has taken the form of military advisers, ground forces, airstrikes and—most recently—shipments of American weapons and military vehicles to the Kurdish YPG militia that is a key component of the SDF.

This week, SDF fighters snatched up a handful of towns roughly 20km southwest of Raqqa city and encircled Islamic State fighters inside the Baath Dam, the third-largest in Syria.

 An SDF fighter southwest of Raqqa city on May 26. Photo courtesy of Raqqa Campaign.

The latest advances are part of the stated goal of the SDF’s Euphrates Wrath operation to encircle and capture Raqqa city.

“We are attempting to cut the Islamic State off from every direction to fully encircle them inside the city,” Rafi, an SDF commander in Raqqa province told Syria Direct on Wednesday. The commander said the US-backed forces were meeting “fierce resistance” in the battles near the Baath Dam.

Before the siege

The SDF has not entered Raqqa city yet, though the US-supported forces are holding frontlines as close as 1km away.

But daily airstrikes and the specter of siege and urban warfare are weighing heavily on the city’s civilian population, two sources inside Raqqa city told Syria Direct.

Because of the difficulty and danger of talking to outside media from inside Raqqa city, Syria Direct contacted the civilians via WhatsApp messages relayed by Furat, an activist from Raqqa currently based in Turkey.

The sources, women who used the pseudonyms Saba and Laila, described airstrikes and bombardment in the past week as “very heavy.”

Both said that the SDF had used artillery to shell the city in recent days. SDF commander Rafi denied the claim, saying that the forces had “not yet used heavy weapons.”

The commander acknowledged “civilian casualties inside the city,” but claimed that most were people who attempted to flee and fell victim to Islamic State IEDs and mines ringing the city. 

The Syrian Network for Human Rights, an independent violations monitor, said that it had recorded 177 civilians killed by coalition forces in Raqqa province in May 2017 in a report published online Thursday. Some 81 civilians were killed by IS over the same period, the monitor said.

The US-led coalition claimed 87 strikes in the Raqqa area over the past week, an average of around a dozen per day. The coalition does not include casualties in its daily strike releases.

Laila, who was a university student in Raqqa before the war, said it was hard to verify the precise number of those killed in Raqqa city, but that the number was “going up every day.” Saba gave a similar account, citing the difficulty of moving around to gather information and get it out of the city.

Displaced people from the Raqqa and Aleppo countryside are reportedly living in Raqqa city’s schools, giving rise to worries of mass casualties if the buildings were hit by airstrikes or ground bombardment.

A public park in central Raqqa city, near the National Hospital, is now being used as a graveyard, Laila said, “because of the increased bombings.”

On Wednesday, US warplanes reportedly bombed a communications center in the heart of Raqqa city, putting all landlines out of service, pro-opposition news site Enab Baladi reported. IS-linked news site Amaq reported the outage as well, which was also described by Laila and Saba.

“People are scared that the food will run out,” 26-year-old Raqqa resident Saba told Syria Direct. “It is already becoming scarce, and the prices are rising.”

Because IS forces require Raqqa residents to use the self-proclaimed caliphate’s own dirham coins, residents are buying the currency to use in the markets and stock up on supplies, Laila said.

As a result, “IS is getting the rest of the Syrian pounds that people in Raqqa have,” said Laila. “What will we do with the dirham after IS leaves?”

All sources contacted for this report said that at least some civilians are making it out of Raqqa by paying smugglers or IS personnel enormous sums and risking their lives to cross over minefields.

“Street fighting has not begun, but the city will be stormed very soon,” commander Rafi told Syria Direct. “We will take Raqqa, just like we broke Daesh and took Kobani and Manbij before it.”

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.