The day after: US-backed forces thwart Islamic State counterattack after Tabqa win

AMMAN: The Syrian Democratic Forces drove back an Islamic State counterattack in the west Raqqa countryside on Thursday, one day after the American-backed militia “fully captured” the key city of Tabqa and the nearby Euphrates Dam, military sources told Syria Direct.

Just before dawn on Thursday, Islamic State (IS) fighters launched a two-pronged assault on two SDF positions—18km and 4km southwest of Tabqa city, respectively—that sparked intense clashes.

“We are currently fighting back the Islamic State attack,” Shervan Darwish, an SDF commander and spokesman for the Manbij Military Council, told Syria Direct on Thursday. Official SDF media reported that dozens of IS fighters had been killed in the assault.

Thursday’s IS attack came less than 24 hours after the SDF announced that it had taken full control of the last IS-held districts in Tabqa city, which lies 40km west of Raqqa, the Syrian capital of the self-proclaimed caliphate.

“We have fully liberated Tabqa city and the dam,” Jihan Sheikh Ahmed, the SDF spokeswoman for the battles told Syria Direct on Thursday. “We killed all of the IS personnel who were holed up inside the dam and rescued civilians they were using as human shields.”

 Atop the Euphrates Dam on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Afarin Mamosta.

The US-led coalition, which has carried out 76 airstrikes near Tabqa in support of SDF ground forces this month alone, confirmed the capture of the city and dam on Wednesday.

The SDF is a multi-ethnic coalition of Syrian forces of which the Kurdish YPG/J militia is a key component.

Videos and pictures posted on SDF social media channels on Wednesday and Thursday show scenes of celebratory gunfire, dancing and SDF fighters walking through central Tabqa, as well as the view from atop the Euphrates Dam.

The capture of Tabqa on Wednesday was the culmination of weeks of battles that began in late March when SDF fighters were airdropped behind IS lines on the western bank of the Euphrates River by coalition aircraft.

Dozens of coalition airstrikes in support of the battles devastated parts of Tabqa city, while encroaching frontlines left hundreds of civilians trapped, Syria Direct reported.

Concerns for the safety and structural integrity of the Euphrates Dam plagued the fighting. In March, IS-linked media reported extensive damage to the dam’s structure and warned it could collapse. The SDF and coalition denied the claims, later posting images online that appeared to show the dam was operational.

 SDF fighters in Tabqa city on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Euphrates Wrath.

IS fighters made their last stand at the dam and three districts adjacent to it, holding out there for approximately 10 days.

An unknown number of civilians also remained in the districts. One day before the SDF announced they fully captured the city, some 500 civilians were able to flee the IS districts for nearby SDF territory, Kurdish Ronahi TV reported on Tuesday.

“Laser-activated explosives are being defused on the edges of and inside the dam,” SDF commander Darwish said on Thursday. “Sweeping operations continue in the entire city.”

SDF spokeswoman Ahmed told Syria Direct that civilians who had fled Tabqa city during the battles would be allowed to return to their homes “gradually.”

‘Tighten the noose’

Tabqa was the latest target in a multi-stage campaign, dubbed “Euphrates Wrath,” to isolate and capture Raqqa city from the Islamic State.

The SDF, advancing with support from US-led coalition airstrikes and American artillery, have now encircled Raqqa city to the north, east and west. Airstrikes have blown out bridges across the Euphrates River to the south.

After taking Tabqa, “SDF and coalition forces will continue operations to isolate and seize Raqqa,” coalition spokesman US Air Force Colonel John Dorrian tweeted on Wednesday.

US Secretary of Defense General James Mattis told a press conference in Denmark on Tuesday that the fight against IS would “accelerate” in coming weeks and months.

 SDF fighters in Tabqa city on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Euphrates Wrath.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon announced that US President Donald Trump had authorized the Defense Department to “equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces as necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIS in Raqqa, Syria.”

The move angered Turkey, which views the Kurdish YPG forces within the SDF as a terrorist organization linked to the PKK party, which has waged a bloody insurgency inside Turkey for decades.

“We would like to believe that our allies will prefer to side with us and not with terrorist organizations,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is due to visit Washington later this month, told a press conference in Ankara on Wednesday.

Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik said in a televised interview on Wednesday that giving additional arms to the YPG “will benefit neither the region nor the US.”

On Wednesday, the SDF released a statement via the Euphrates Wrath channel on messaging app Telegram, announcing that battles in the countryside near Raqqa city “to tighten the noose and blockade the enemy” had resumed following a 15-day pause.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He mvoed 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.

Abdulaziz a-Jolani

Abdulaziz is from Quneitra and lived in Outer Damascus. He graduated with a degree in accounting before moving to Jordan. He previously worked as a photographer in Syria.

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.