Islamic State pushes back against SDF advances in southern Raqqa city

AMMAN: US-backed forces are trying to drive remaining Islamic State fighters out of southwestern Raqqa city ahead of an expected push into the heart of the embattled provincial capital, an SDF media source told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

Since last week, fighters with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have advanced into and captured much of Raqqa’s southwestern Nazlat Shahadah district, bridging the gap between their partner forces in Hisham bin Abdulmalik to the east. The two neighborhoods lie between central Raqqa city and the Euphrates River to the south.

The push to capture the districts is a precursor to a drive northwards into the center of the Islamic State (IS) capital in Syria once the southern neighborhoods are secure, Mustafa Bali, the head of the SDF media center told Syria Direct Tuesday from the embattled provincial capital.

Now, less than half a mile separates the two SDF fronts in southern Raqqa city, but remaining IS defenders and fortifications have so far prevented the US-backed fighters from completely capturing the districts.

“We are nearly in full control, but there are still some Daesh [IS] pockets inside,” said SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali.

On Tuesday, the SDF was still engaged in “fierce” battles with IS fighters in Nazlat Shahadah and the nearby Panorama circle and Edkhar military housing areas, he said.

Bali denied reports in the Arabic media on Tuesday that SDF forces had fully captured Nazlat Shahadah and joined fronts with their fellow fighters in the Hisham bin Abdulmalik district to the east. SDF fighters have been “delayed” by IS defenses, the official said.

IS “has a wide array of defenses,” said Bali. “Human shields, tunnels, explosives…these facts on the ground influence the course of military operations.”

International coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon told reporters in a press briefing from Baghdad last Thursday that the SDF is advancing against “stiff, sporadic resistance from ISIS entrenched in [Raqqa] city.” The coalition estimates “less than 2,000” IS fighters remain in the city, Dillon added.

A 30-minute IS propaganda video from Raqqa city released on Sunday shows the group’s fighters and snipers targeting SDF forces, planting IEDs, moving through underground tunnels and carrying out several suicide car bombings.

Speaking to Syria Direct on Tuesday, SDF media official Bali claimed there had been an “increase” in the number of suicide attacks against the SDF in Raqqa city.

The latest issue of the Islamic State’s weekly newsletter al-Naba, published on July 27, claimed that the group had carried out 43 suicide attacks in the first two months of the battle for Raqqa city.

An article in the newsletter alleged that more than 50 SDF fighters were killed last week in the southern districts of Nazlat Shahadah and Hisham bin Abdulmalik districts alone.

The SDF has not officially reported its casualty numbers throughout the past two months of fighting in Raqqa city. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Monday that 256 SDF fighters—including four American volunteers—and approximately 500 IS fighters have been killed so far in the battles.

 An IS suicide car bomb detonates in a recent propaganda release from Raqqa city.

According to Airwars, an independent monitor that tracks casualties and US-led coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, an estimated 480 civilians have been killed by coalition actions in Raqqa city over the past two months. Among them are more than 100 children, according to the monitor. The coalition reports far lower casualty figures.

“Although we are still seeing some incidents where one or two people are being killed, there are also many incidents of entire families being wiped out by air and artillery strikes,” Kinda Haddad, the chief Syria researcher at Airwars said in a report published by the monitor on July 28.

International medical organization Doctors Without Borders (MSF) voiced concern for the tens of thousands of civilians believed to be trapped inside shrinking IS-held territory in Raqqa city, in a report published online Monday.

MSF currently operates eight ambulances and a medical point near the frontlines in Raqqa city and a clinic in the Ain Issa camp for displaced people, the organization said.

For those people who manage to flee IS-held territories, “by the time they reach our hospitals, their wounds have often become seriously infected,” Vanessa Cramond, the MSF medical coordinator for Turkey and northern Syria said in Monday’s report. “Saving their limbs is seldom possible.”

As conditions reportedly worsen for civilians, US-backed forces are preparing for more intense battles to come as they push deeper into the IS-held heart of Raqqa city.

“The future battles will be fierce and unforgiving,” said SDF media official Bali. “It is a matter of life and death for this terrorist organization."

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.