Bloody urban fight for Raqqa city drags on amid ‘vicious’ IS counterattacks

AMMAN: More than one month into the battle for Raqqa city, United States-backed forces advancing deeper into the Islamic State capital in Syria are locked in grinding urban battles and facing “vicious” counterattacks, while civilian casualties from coalition airstrikes mount.

“The deeper our forces advance into Raqqa, the more violent and frequent the clashes become,” Muhammad Abu Adel, a commander with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—a multiethnic militia mostly made up of Kurdish and Arab fighters—launched their battle for Raqqa city on June 6.

Advancing under coalition airstrikes and artillery fire since then, the SDF have captured a military base and several districts in eastern and western Raqqa city, and on June 24, fully encircled and isolated the provincial capital.

On July 4, the SDF penetrated the ancient wall of Raqqa’s Old City and captured territory inside for the first time. As of Wednesday, the forces hold approximately 50 percent of the historic area and 35 percent of the city as a whole, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported. The SDF has not published a similar figure.

Over the past weeks of fighting, Islamic State suicide attacks, car bombings, landmines and snipers have meant a bloody fight for each street and district captured by the SDF. At the same time, hundreds of coalition airstrikes razed buildings and killed IS fighters and civilian residents of Raqqa city alike.

Airwars, an independent monitor that tracks casualties and coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, published a report online on Wednesday that found in Raqqa governorate alone, “between 335 and 422 civilians were likely killed in coalition air and artillery strikes” in June.

The monitor also noted a “four-fold increase” in coalition munitions use in Raqqa during the same month. So far in July, the coalition has reported 220 strikes near Raqqa in support of the battles.

A video circulated online by the Islamic State on July 3 shows extensive destruction inside Raqqa city as well as a number of bleeding and burned children. In the video, an Islamic State fighter identified as Abu Yousuf al-Australi says in English that the injuries are the result of “the continuous bombings that America is dropping on us.”

It is not immediately clear how many SDF fighters have been killed since the battle for Raqqa began 37 days ago. The SDF, via its Raqqa Campaign channel on messaging app Telegram, did announce 15 of its fighters had been killed in the first 10 days of the Raqqa battle, and 4 killed on July 4, the day they entered the Old City.

Wednesday’s SOHR report said that the monitor had documented 137 SDF fighters killed in the battles, among them two Americans and a British volunteer whose deaths have been officially announced by the SDF.

A picture posted online July 11 purports to show destruction inside Raqqa city. Photo courtesy of Alkamar News.

SDF commander Abu Adel, from the SDF’s Manbij Military Council, whose forces participated in the battles to encircle Raqqa city from the south, told Syria Direct on Wednesday that the MMC has lost 15 fighters so far. Seven of them were killed over the past three days alone, “because of IS counterattacks with suicide bombers,” he said.

Such counterattacks are not only a hallmark of fighting south of the city. On Tuesday, the Islamic State announced that three suicide bombers had attacked “two positions of the PKK apostates” east of Raqqa city and killed at least 12 fighters. 

On Wednesday, the SDF’s Syriac Military Council tweeted that “several attacks” east and west of Raqqa city had been prevented advances in the past 24 hours.

“These are days of trials,” an IS member told gathered fighters in a propaganda video from Raqqa posted online June 28. Gunfire and explosions are audible in the background as he speaks. “The greatest thing you can present to God is to sell yourself to him cheaply.”

“This organization has become like a rabid dog,” said SDF commander Abu Adel, “viciously attacking to stop the advance of our forces, but they are being defeated.”

With a wide stretch of territory south of Raqqa city now held by the SDF, the MMC’s forces will be redeployed to the provincial capital’s neighborhoods in coming days, Abu Adel said.

“We are needed on the fronts,” he said, “because of the severity of the battles.”

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.